Letters to the Editor
FAITH Magazine November-December 2006
The Need for a Convincing Challenge to Philosophical Materialism
Dear Father Editor
I enjoyed Peter Kwasniewski’s article ‘Catholic Tradition and the Creator of All’ (Sep-Oct 2006). I thought it was an excellent review of the opinions of Scripture and Tradition on the meaning of creation, a topic of perennial importance for the Church. However, Professor Kwasniewski frequently mentioned the concept of chance or randomness in his overview, without really explaining what he understood the word to mean. For example, he observes that nature makes use of “random methods for definite purposes, as with the scattering of seeds”. Citing Aristotle, he says “nature does not work in a purely mathematical way”. This is an interesting assertion, but seems to leave some questions unanswered. Indeed, the concept of random chance is a difficult one and would certainly merit someunpacking.
Take the example of seeds being scattered by the wind. To what extent is this process truly random? From the standpoint of physics, that which we often call “random” in an everyday sense is in fact completely determined. If we could somehow know a seed’s mass and all the forces acting on the seed at all points in time, we could write down a differential equation which describes its deterministic motion. Of course, it is unlikely we will be able to solve this equation precisely.
Any appearance of randomness is simply a lack of precise knowledge of the conditions (which may be incredibly complicated) and our lack of an exact mathematical equation specifying the seed’s motion. In the long run, it becomes incredibly difficult to predict where the seed will end up so the whole thing might give rise to the illusion of randomness..
The loose use of the concept of “chance”, which has plagued so much of the debate between science and religion, seems to be in some way related to at least two issues. One is the question of human freedom (which Professor Kwasniewski does not fully deal with and leaves implicit). The other is the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. (see his review letter in this issue, Editor).
The Copenhagen interpretation allows for non-deterministic processes on a microscopic scale—a genuine kind of randomness. Such an interpretation remains disputed. If we accept this understanding of Quantum Theory, we can see our universe as capricious, where on the most fundamental level everyday laws of cause and effect do not apply. Our experience of chance and freedom might even, in this picture, be ascribed to the massively complicated and fundamentally non-deterministic interactions of the microscopic constituents of the universe and is then illusory.
This randomness is an exception to the rest of physics, which “obeys” deterministic equations. On the basis of the rest of physics, it can (and is) argued that all nature does indeed work in a purely deterministic way. This could be taken to imply that the entire history of the universe is in fact completely fixed from the beginning of time. Again, this makes any concept of chance, or indeed freedom, purely illusory.
Neither a capricious nor a wholly determined universe sits comfortably with human self-consciousness. Such materialism risks reducing the meaningfulness of this fundamental human experience. We all perceive ourselves to be free (to some extent) and have a well-defined will, which does not seem to be simply reducible to low-level, non-deterministic physics—without losing the essence of personal self-consciousness
To escape such problems, it seems we must investigate the way in which man’s spiritual nature affects his interactions with the material universe. Man, created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26) has a mind and will which are not merely an “epiphenomenon” of his material being (cf. Message delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 October 1996, by Pope John Paul II). This remains a huge open problem in philosophy, theology and the sciences.
This whole matter of chance and randomness seems naturally to highlight what is, in my opinion, a critical barrier in discussions with neo-Darwinism et al. No matter how many ways in which we see God manifested in His creation, we will find it very difficult to convince anyone unless we can break away from a materialist understanding of the universe. Since the Enlightenment, it has become a tacit assumption of our culture that the only kind of knowledge worth bothering with is that which can be proven by experiment and described with mathematical laws. This assumption seems to have paid off in some ways, in the proliferation of time saving technology and the rising standard of living in the West. To some people these benefits seem to justify the original assumption. Increasingly our livesare governed by technology, the everyday manifestation of this scientific way of thinking.
Immersed as we are in gadgetry, living a lifestyle which, in its very making, is explicable by scientific laws, our culture feels an inherent uneasiness in discussing things that can’t be explained in this way. Pre-technological cultures are much more open to the concept of the transcendent. This scientific world-view (combined with a fragmentary post-modern outlook) allows man to build his own cosy neighbourhood into which God does not seem to intrude. Western culture seems to be building its own latter-day Tower of Babel, where modern man seeks to “make a name” for himself at the expense of ignoring God (cf. Genesis 11:4-9). All the central ideas of Christianity (the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, miracles and eternal life to name but a few) fundamentally do not fit in. They are beyondour ordinary experience (by their very nature) and are not scientifically verifiable.
If we are ever to win any of these arguments with evolutionism, we must demonstrate that man’s reason transcends the material realm and is not restricted to the empirically verifiable—that he is a physical and spiritual being, in the image and likeness of God. This happens to be a fundamental aspect of the Catholic tradition. (See the review of David Jones’s book in our Book Reviews. Editor )
We must be able to show that knowledge which cannot be verified by experiment is worthy of our
attention again. If the Enlightenment alerted mankind to the necessity of experiment and mathematical theory, it did so at the expense of the transcendent. Whilst accepting all that we have learned from science in the past three hundred years, it must be our project to open men to God using their God-given natural reason. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this letter to do so! It seems incumbent upon the Catholic intellectual community to engage materialism in a fundamental way, in order to find ways of achieving this goal. At the moment, this doesn’t seem to be happening.
Our failure in this field has allowed secular post-modern culture to become a culture of death. Whilst theists are happy to see the hand of God in the order and goodness of creation, I believe engaging with atheists ultimately requires a far deeper approach, which has not yet been fully articulated.
Dear Father Editor
May I thank you for your profound editorial article, The Catholic view of Matter: Towards a New Synthesis in the September/October edition of Faith. It was fascinating, and I think important, to see the development over the centuries of the philosophical rift which eventually grew between science and religion, as a result of which many scientists (although by no means all) abandoned any idea of a Creator God.
On the question of infallibility, Mr Alan Pavelin notes that one of the Church’s teachings which
was regarded as infallible but has now been changed is that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. May I quote Pope Pius IX on this subject, in an Allocution given on December 9th, 1854:
“It is to be held of faith that no one can be saved outside the Apostolic Roman Church, which
is the only ark of salvation... nevertheless it must equally be held that he who is in ignorance of the true religion, if this is invincible, is therefore in no way culpable in the sight of God. Now who shall think himself sufficient to be able to set limits to this sort of ignorance, bearing in mind the manner and variety of peoples, places, talents, and of all other circumstances whatsoever.” [Allocution of Pope Pius IX, Dec.9, 1854.]
The same teaching can be found in today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras 846-848.
Dawkins Denial of Meaning
Dear Father Editor
This is only of partial interest to you in your high efforts to establish a synthesis of Faith and reason, but I was wondering if you might put to your readership a small query concerning one of the more divisive voices of the movement you oppose.
Richard Dawkins posits many arguments aiming to prove there is no God via science. It is actually sad that he often lets slip a disgust at what he perceives to be the power, influence and wealth exercised by religious authority at the expense of an enslaved and bamboozled faithful.
In seeing an advert for his latest tome The God Delusion: What if There’s No Heaven?, aimed at “Dumping religious bigotry in the dustbin of history.” (£4 off at Waterstone’s) in The Times of 3rd October last. I was wondering if there can be a moral objection to an atheist extracting power influence and wealth (spendable) out of an ill-educated secular audience. Is he exempt by not being encumbered by a moral side to his thinking?
See our Cutting Edge column for another view of the incoherence of Dawkins’ position.
Slavery and the Magisterium
Dear Father Editor
The excellent article by Father Linus Clovis in your July/August issue contains a brief account of
the attempts by several Popes to stop Catholics being involved in chattel slavery. As a footnote to
that article, may I draw attention to a book entitled The Popes and Slavery written by Father Joel
Panzer and published in New York in 1996 by Alba House (an imprint of the Society of St Paul). It contains a detailed history of the matter, as well as copies (and translations) of many of the relevant documents issued by the Popes and the Holy Office. These documents fully support the argument of Father Clovis.
Dear Father Editor
Thank you for yet another fantastic edition of Faith (Sept/Oct 06). As a contribution to your reflection upon the decline of our civilization might I share with you this experience of the BBC. On the morning of Saturday 27th May 2006 my family and I were listening to Radio One in the car, our six year old in the back of the vehicle. The DJ made a sneering joke as follows: "Europe has invented two narcotics, alcohol and Christianity, and I know which one I prefer". His ensuing sneers confirmed his preference was not a Christian one.
The following programme was on Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the young. The programme opened with inappropriate jokes about rampant sexual behaviour, with young girls ironically describing how they had been so ‘out of it’ that they couldn't remember who had given them their sexual diseases.
This was before 10.00 am, and families with young children could be expected to be listening. The target audience for this Saturday morning must also have included young teens as this was the age of the children participating on air. The programme would have been merely feeble for an adult audience, but for youngsters it was, it seems to me, abusive. It was systematically encouraging underage sexual behaviour. Consciously or unconsciously it was at times revelling in children’s experiences of unprotected sex and sex in which condoms had broken.
Among the questions raised are those concerning the details of the BBC’s Child Protection policy and whether they have been followed in this instance. I rang the BBC to complain but over four months on have had no response. I have recently put it in writing.
See William Oddie’s comments on the BBC in this issue and our discussion of the developing culture of ‘Sex Education’ in an upcoming issue.