Science and the Spiritual: The Unaddressed Relationshipat the Foundation of Modern Evangelisation

Editorial FAITH Magazine November – December 2010


"Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." Romans 1:20

Hawking's Challenge

Early last September Stephen Hawking claimed to have come close to the coveted Theory of Everything, and this without any need to invoke God. He wrote in The Times: "Philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science ... scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." Behind the cursory dismissal of philosophy, and especially metaphysics, lies a materialistic prejudice that is widespread in the scientific community. Especially sadly it has been unwittingly encouraged by most prominent Catholic thinkers since Descartes. These thinkers have attempted to keep the specific discoveries of modern science in a box where such data cannot effect the study of the foundations of physical reality, namely metaphysics. The main exceptions to this tendency are "Process" theologians, who unfortunately compromise the transcendence of God.

Because of this avoidance of science the rejection of the materialism of Hawking et al by the philosophical schools of Transcendental Thomism, neo-scholastic realism and personalist phenomenology, is restricted in its effectiveness. As one they rightly uphold the reality of the supra-material self-conscious human subject. It is indeed an important truth that at the core of our identity as human beings we experience a spiritual intentionality that defies reduction to the level of material causality. Nonetheless we human beings, precisely because we are both matter and spirit, body and soul, cannot, in our very understanding of human consciousness, prescind from the material conditions that characterise the human condition. Human knowing, human reason necessarily entails human sensation. On this point we should not be shy of acknowledging the sometimes well expressed post-modern insight that the meaningfulness of linguistic concepts is always related to an individual's experience of the physical.

Such Catholic philosophy is hamstrung by its failure to engage fully with material reality, and its credibility is shaken in the light of the specific, successful and useful results of science. This philosophy often regards "usefulness" as of little metaphysical significance. Whilst the concept is certainly not primary at the level of spiritual communion between persons, actual and potential usefulness, in the sense of functional relationality, is, in the light of modern physics, chemistry and biology at the heart of the very being and metaphysical significance of physical things.
The fairly ubiquitous failure of contemporary Catholic thought to respect the findings of modern science as anything more than interesting and handy measurement and mathematics is charted in this issue by Stephen Barr, John Haldane and David Brown. This failure is the reason why Catholic academia continues to fail to find an effective and widely accepted response to the inexorable rise of the anti-metaphysical Kantianism.

This situation is witnessed to by the fact that the only metaphysical issue where there is a virtual consensus among mainstream twentieth century Catholic thinkers, apart from the reality of human subjectivity mentioned above, is the claim that the discoveries of modern science should not have a significant influence upon metaphysics.

To this extent Hawking would seem to be right.

Roots of the Denial

Christopher Dawson, in reflecting upon the "drama of our times", wrote concerning the French Revolution:

"We have not paid enough attention to the intellectual revolution that had already taken place before there was any question of a political one. Yet it is this intellectual revolution that is responsible for the secularisation of western culture ... [which] owed ... its diffusion to the ill-judged and unjust, though sincere, action of religious orthodoxy" (Christopher Dawson, The Gods of Revolution, Sidgwick& Jackson, 1972, p14-15)

A key aspect of such 'ill-judged' reaction was the defence against the impact of science which had begun with Descartes. Ronald Knox pointed out that Descartes "has made absolute, by a decree that has lasted to our own day, the divorce between the study of the world outside us and the study of the human mind as an instrument" (God and the Atom, Sheed and Ward. p.27).

Back in the early seventeenth century Francis Bacon, the first modern philosopher of science, recognised that the developmental nature of modern scientific methodology provided a truer vision of how human knowing arrives at formality than the scholastic theory of abstraction. We fill out our knowledge of the unity of "Whiskers the cat" and our definition of the species of "cat" through repeated observation - and this knowledge can never be final and absolutely definitive until we know the whole cosmos. Bacon thus begun the inexorable uncovering of the dynamic and relational aspects of the phenomenon of formality. This inherent dynamism was absent from Greco-Catholic form-matter hylomorphism. Ronald Knox put the resultant question this way:

"How (we ask) is it possible for research to burrow deeper and deeper into the very heart of being, and come back to us with no news of having come across, even having go nearer, to the heart of being as philosophers conceive it? ... We talk about 'form' and 'matter'; distinguish between the mere undifferentiated substratum which underlies any existing thing, and the added principle which makes it what it is. And here are the physicists, splitting up the molecule into atoms and now picking away at the atom itself, peering down into the deep abyss in which the constituent elements of all chemical things are the same; yet never a word have they to tell us about where 'form' ends and 'matter' begins!" (p.35-36)

Descartes attempted to protect Catholic metaphysical methodology from the encroachment of science through his "innate ideas", which depicted the Greek static form as something known a priori to human experience of the physical.

This radical undermining of the distinct and dynamic intelligibility and identity of the objective realm finds a logical end point in Kant's foundation of modern a priori idealism. Kant argued that the whole intelligibility of an experienced 'phenomenon' is known a priori to the experience. For him the actuality of the distinct, existential 'noumenon' of the objective realm is not intelligibly grasped. He dedicated his Critique of Pure Reason to Bacon seemingly in recognition of the need to look carefully at the phenomenon of human experience. Kant's radically dualistic analysis of such experience led him to deny the objective existentiality of holistic forms, yet to affirm that we do know that there is an unknowable noumenal pole of sensation. He epitomises the worst nightmare of traditional Catholic thinkers concerning what effect modern science might have upon formal realism if it is allowed to. Kant indeed declared the death of metaphysics.

Thinkers who have been more faithful to Thomistic Realism, with its a posteriori abstraction of the universal form, have rejected the idea that formality is a priori to observation in general but kept it as a priori to modern experimental observation. Thus, seemingly in order protect the validity of metaphysics, they have tried to depict scientific methodology as a radically different type of observation from normal human observation of the physical.

Etienne Gilson in his influential 1971 book From Aristotle to Descartes and Back Again favoured claiming that the object of science is material and efficient causation while normal physical observation is much broader and gets at formal and final causation. The former he argued is useful at the concrete physical level, the latter not. Yet, in fact chemistry and biology do uncover formal and indeed final, that is teleological, dimensions. Take for example the chemical properties captured by the periodic table or a plant's very formal and final environmental interaction that we call photosynthesis, not to mention animal behaviour. The properties of the chemical substances, a plant's movement towards the sun and its ability to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide are very useful to humans in general and can be very useful to designers.

Neo-scholastic metaphysics has continued to prize the universal realm of the "form", for example "cat-ness", over the realm of the concrete individual, for example Whiskers the cat. Yet this concrete realm is profoundly relevant to the advance of science. Moreover, as Stephen Barr affirms, in this issue, our significantly increased access to the dynamics and mathematics of the concrete offered by experimental methodology speaks clearly of the formal and intelligible dimensions. This places an inexorably increasing pressure upon the traditional division of reality between the concrete individual and the static and hermetically sealed off character of the universal 'form'.

Crucially then the distinction between science and human observation, recently invented in order to defend traditional Catholic metaphysics in its entirety, does not hold water. For modern scientific method is just sophisticated observation. Pope Benedict, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last October, affirmed that "experimentation [is] an organised method for observing nature". And as with all the future predictions that always accompany observation there can be a justifiable certainty, especially about the past and present, as well as provisionality, especially about the future. As the Pope added "even provisional results constitute a real contribution to unveiling the correspondence between the intellect and natural realities".

The Contemporary Situation

In the modern era the scientific "encroachment" has continued. Tragically, a nominalistic and reductionist philosophy of science has filled the gap left by the absence of a respectful, holistic Catholic interpretation. In this emergent philosophy of science formality and finality became metaphysically secondary whilst concrete individuality and its newly singing and dancing mathematics became the primary reality. The basic traditional metaphysical dualism of universal form and individual remained, but the ontological primacy was just flipped from formality to "material" individuality. This is the deeper root of modern materialism.

If, as we have noted, our sole defence against materialism has been the reality of the human subject, so our sole defence against philosophical reductionism has been limited to pointing out that it is in reality a reductio adabsurdum. For it is indeed absurd to remove the objective meaningfulness of the holistic level of physical things. If the fact that "the plant needs the sun" is not a real relationship but can be reduced, without losing anything of its being, to a description of the plant's parts and the mechanics of photosynthesis, then this reduction can also be done to these parts and mechanics, and so on, until there is no reality left at all.

Yet, as alluded to above, this defence against the culturally dominant mindset has only ever been a partial defence because the data of science is still patronised as irrelevant. The very intellectual weakness of keeping science at arm's length invites the dominant dualistic mindset to interpret scientific as well as other observational data in a reductive manner, which leads to nominalism. And this is what has happened. Every successful advance of the technological revolution has been spun, with little direct opposition, as further evidence of the nominalistic nature of the universe, the individualistic nature of man and the meaninglessness of metaphysics.

Contemporary Papal Magisterium on New Metaphysics

A few days after Hawking made his point Pope Benedict, in Westminster Hall, warned our cultural leaders against any attempt to cut natural reason off from its transcendent foundations and the religious revelation which has served it and us so well (see our Road from Regensburg column).

Yet this transcendence is a transcendence of the physical and arises from the relationship of human reason to the physical realm, as St Paul points out to the Romans (1:19). If "natural reason" is to be open to supernatural revelation it must coherently move beyond the realm of physical nature to that realm which founds it, the metaphysical. The justification of such a movement is key to the fulfilment of Pope Benedict's heartfelt call.

This foundation of physics in metaphysics has been recognised by the Catholic tradition, from the moment the Son of God took the physical realm to his very self, right up to Pope Benedict's description of science, to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in October last, as "a place of dialogue, a meeting between man and nature and, potentially between man and his Creator. Pope John Paul put it like this: "We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent." [Fides et Ratio, 83].

He went on to state:

"I wish to reaffirm strongly the conviction that the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge. This is one of the tasks which Christian thought will have to take up through the next millennium of the Christian era. The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity. How could the Church not be concerned by this?" [n. 85]

We need to move towards a "unified and organic vision" of creation, witnessing to the one simple Logos through Whom it was all made. Yet how can we do this if developments of modern science, which have done so much to reveal the wonder of creation, have no determinative role to play.

Rather, as Pope Benedict said in his October speech: "as increasing accomplishments of the sciences deepen our wonder of the complexity of nature, the need for an interdisciplinary approach tied with philosophical reflection leading to a synthesis is more and more perceived".

Ronald Knox put it this way back in 1945:

"Our age is in need of a great philosopher; one who can thread his way, step by step, through the intricate labyrinth of reasoning into which scientists have been led, eyes riveted to earth ... one who can keep his mind, at the same time, open to the metaphysical implications of all he learns, and at last put the whole corpus of our knowledge together in one grand synthesis ... He must at once be a Thomist and an Atomist; until that reconciliation is attempted, the pulpit and the laboratory will be forever at cross-purposes." {God and the Atom, Sheed and Ward p.110-111)

Towards a Solution

There was and is a need for a philosophy of science which, as Edward Holloway writes, was more "existential in emphasis" than essential, whilst being truly realist concerning formal universality (cf. Perspectives in Philosophy, Vol III, Noumenon and Phenomenon: Rethinking the Greeks in the Age of Science, Faith-Keyway Trust). Christianity needs a philosophy which affirms the concept of human "nature" in a way that affirms its effective and historical sharing between us and Christ.

There is no question that reductionism is false and has been shown to be such. There is no question that we must justify anew the concept of universals, like human nature, if we are to maintain the harmony of faith and reason. Yet if we ignore our new knowledge of what it means to be a part of something we cannot appropriately show that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Our own observation of substantial formality is, and must be shown to be, consistent with our biological, chemical and physical knowledge. So the fact that my pet Whiskers is more than the sum of its parts is indisputable, and widely acknowledged today. But the task of harmonising this with the biochemistry of its organs is crucial.

But there is one other facet that needs to be synthesised with this if we are to be able to refound Christian culture: the fact (and the Judaeo-Christian revelation) that my very power of intelligent observation is in the image of God's Mind. For thereby we found the coherence of modern science with basic Judaeo-Christian anthropology, not least concerning human freedom, creativity, spirituality and eternal destiny.

My grasping of the above holistic, formal patterns of physical relationships between things and their environments is an immediate grasping of what is in immediate relationship with the Mind of its Creator. They are objects of my knowing because they are the objects of God's knowing. And my creative development of these patterns is in the image of the Logos of God. That is to say the human creation of artefacts and, indeed any intelligent and intentional interaction of the human body with its environment is a reflection of God's ultimate fiat. My very control and direction of my own body is a clear illustration of the immediacy of such creative knowing and willing.

All material things, whether natural or artificial, are holistic unities because they are in an immediate founding relationship with a mind. The difference between a natural thing and a man-made thing is that the creativity in the latter case applies only to the holistic, unitary level of functionality, whereas in the former case it applies to every level of the thing whatever, from top to bottom, throughout its physics, chemistry and biology - it is creation exnihilo.

In this vision metaphysics is simply the study of matter as it relates to mind, which is matter's foundational relationship. Thus it is that over decades of Faith publications, symposia and youth catechesis we have and continue to put an extremely unfashionable effort into updating the traditional arguments for the distinction of matter and spirit, body and soul.

Such an intellectual itinerary is in contrast to the traditional western proposal of a dualistic, "dialectical" tension between matter and form, the many and the one, matter and spirit, body and soul, object and subject. Yet this is this same contrast is present between the Judaeo-Christian tradition and other religious traditions.

As Claude Tresmontant was at pains to point out and carefully to defend:

"The metaphysical content of the religious tradition of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, is utterly different from the metaphysical content or structure of the religious traditions of India, Africa, Oceania or Greece." {The Origins of Christian Philosophy, Burns and Oates, 1962, page 100).

Indeed the early Fathers rejected any neo-Platonic dualism between an eternal, unformed, unintelligible matter and a form which somehow floats between this and God. Irenaeus, for instance, wrote in the second century AD:

"Men can certainly never make things out of nothing; they need to be provided with matter. But God is greater than man, in so far as the matter, which he fashions, though it did not exist previously, he himself creates."

This contrast is true not least concerning the approach to the fundamental issue of the status of evil. The uniquely Judaeo-Christian approach is that evil is secondary to goodness, emerging from the abuse of goodness by free creatures. It is not a metaphysical principle, equal and opposite to goodness, as it is in Eastern religions, and the Greek philosophy which flowed from them. D/s-order is a breakdown of order. So it does not need to be incorporated into our basic metaphysics as many modern thinkers seem to do, not least Process Theology. We just need to discern what interactions arise purely from the nature of things and what from man's activity, both good and evil. As our review of Alister McGrath's latest book in this issue implies, he, along with many other contemporary science and religion writers, fails to make this discernment and thus, whilst making numerous helpful points, despairs of inferring properties of God from looking at nature. Yet this discernment of order and disorder is precisely what science does in order to be successful, and its very success confirms this Christian metaphysic.


Our civilisation was once Christian. After centuries of Christian defeat in intellectual debate it is no longer so. We are now lost in mists of philosophical and cultural "pluralism", which really stands for agnosticism and moral chaos. The need for a new synthesis is not an academic issue, the future of the Church in the West depends on it, our debased secular culture is crying out for it. Surely we must expect God to prompt it and all men and women of good will to seek it. For as the inspired proverb puts it "where there is no vision the people perish" (Proverbs 29,18).

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