A bit more of my Creed book

A bit more of my Creed book July 23, 2019

Yesterday we started talking about the current fad for “Intelligent Design”.  Let’s resume where we left off:

Actually, there are several problems with that approach, though not with the basic instinct of intuiting a Designer.

The first is this: St. Thomas himself never says “We cannot explain a natural phenomenon, so God did it”, and for good reason.  The problem with such “God of the Gaps” arguments (“I don’t know how this thing works or originated, so it must be a miracle”) is that we are constantly filling in the gaps.  A few hundred years ago, people could have said, “If there’s no God, then explain lightning!”  Then somebody explained that lightning was a big static electricity discharge.  A little after, they might have said, “If there’s no God, then explain magnetism, or immunity from disease, or where babies come from!”  Now we know how these processes work pretty well.  People who thought such arguments were bulletproof often lost their faith when those arguments fell apart.

That’s why St. Thomas never relied on them.  It’s also why he was never bothered when the sciences found (as it is the job of science to do) natural explanations for natural processes.  Thomas (much to the surprise of postmoderns) never appealed to things like miracles or the inexplicable to demonstrate the existence of God.  And that’s where he differs from Intelligent Design arguments.

Intelligent Design arguments look at the radical difference between living organisms and non-living matter and say, “There has to be a supernatural explanation for these radical exceptions to the Rules of how matter normally behaves.”  But this is another God of the Gaps argument, and one whose holes have, in great measure, been filled in by Catholics themselves.[1]

So what did St. Thomas do?  He appealed, not to exceptions to the Rules, but to the fact that there are any Rules at all.  His Argument from Design is not that living systems are amazing exceptions to a lawless and chaotic world, but that the world is not lawless and chaotic.  A complex living thing is not a proof of creation while an uncomplex rock is not.  Rather, the rock and the living thing and everything else in creation bears witness to its Designer and Maker by the fact that it exists, it is obedient to the Rules, and it is intelligible to the three-pound piece of meat behind our eyeballs.  It is this lawfulness of all of nature, not the exceptions to the laws, that impresses St. Thomas.  It is from this that he infers Design, just as we infer design when an arrow (that is not itself intelligent) keeps finding its mark, or a rock keeps finding the ground when we let go of it, or a goose keeps finding its migratory nesting ground every year.

This makes Thomas an ally of the sciences in a way Intelligent Design is not.  Intelligent Design, being a God of the Gaps argument, has to cross its fingers and hope the sciences will never figure why a cell nucleus in all its complexity came into being naturally.  Because if it does, then that bit of creation is removed from the realm of the supernatural and becomes just another understandable bit of chemistry.

But for the Thomist, it is precisely the consistent lawfulness of nature that reliably governs the chemistry of a cell as it governs the orbit of the earth around the sun.  And it is that lawfulness that makes things like science possible at all.  If there were no consistent laws governing time, space, matter, and energy, there could be no science to discover what those laws are and make use of them to create the technology we enjoy.

That is no small part of why the sciences were born in medieval Catholic Europe.  Most ancients had no confidence that nature made sense. Sumerians, for instance, believed the gods were chaotic, so there was no point in trying to figure out the chaos of nature or why the Tigris and Euphrates randomly flooded. For the Romans, nature was a thing to be occasionally exploited, but they undertook no sustained program of trying to analyze it.  They made some small practical use of it in engineering and a few other fields. But that was a far as it went.

There were, to be sure, all sorts of attempts to make connections between things. Indeed, there existed no hard and fast categories such as we have today between what is now called “religion,” “art,” “superstition,” “science” and “philosophy.” So Pythagoras could pursue mathematics, but see no contradiction between that and his mystical beliefs in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. (Indeed, given that numbers and spirits are both things that don’t rely on time, space, matter or energy to exist, it’s not hard to see why he might do so.)

Likewise, the Babylonians tried to fathom the connection between the stars and our earthly fortunes and their studies wavered somewhere between astronomy and astrology. Romans guessed there was a connection between sheep entrails and world events, and so forth. Humans have been trying to figure out the connections between things since the dawn of time.

But, in no small part due to polytheism, most ancients took a very long time to conceive of the chaos of sensory experience flung at them as anything like a universe, just as you or I might have a hard time making any sense of things should a radio blare 200 stations at us all at once.

With the exception of one people—the Jews—virtually all ancient humans everywhere opted for the simple explanation of polytheism: The world was a chaos of warring gods and events just happened for no particular reason, so why bother trying to figure it out?  Sure, now and then, if humans thought about it, they would notice regular patterns in things–the seasons, or gravity, or certain mathematical principles, or tricks for breeding animals.  But nobody attempted a Grand Unified Theory of the world because who knew what Athena, Quetzlcoatl, Eostre, Zeus, or Kali might be planning up there in the heavens where the gods do whatever they do?

Accordingly, in a haphazard way, humans figured out things such as planting seeds or forging iron or devising sufficient geometry to build the Parthenon and the Pyramids. But the main project of antiquity was devoted to trying to placate, not systematically understand, the forces of nature.

Only Aristotle and a few other wealthy dilettantes, at the height of the pagan tradition, plowed ahead with the eccentric idea of a Prime Mover and of a nature that all made sense if you took the trouble to try to understand it.  Most pagans were consulting the oracle at Delphi or making offerings at multiple temples in the hope of pleasing whoever was in charge of the crops, floods, or fertility.

[1] Fun fact: Two of the most important figures in the sciences who contribute to our understanding of both the evolution of the universe and of life on earth were Catholic.

 

Gregor Mendel, the guy who basically invented the science of genetics, was a 19th century Augustinian monk pottering about in the garden and noticing how cross-breeding different flowers led to change in the coloration of subsequent generations.  The science of genetics (which gives us a mechanism of mutation) is hugely important in describing the process of evolution.

 

Monsignor Georges Lemaître was a 20th century physicist who looked at the evidence that everything in the universe was moving away from everything else and realized that if you ran the film backwards you eventually wound up with all of time, space, matter and energy crammed into a single “primeval atom” as he called it.  Run it forward and you have what is now commonly referred to as the “Big Bang”.  Interestingly, that name was originally used as a sneer at Lemaître’s theory since, as the product of the mind of a Catholic priest, it appeared to atheist materialists that his theory gave entirely too much aid and comfort to the idea that the universe had a beginning in time (as revelation had always said) and was therefore trying to smuggle You Know Who into cosmology.  Many scientists clung to a Steady State theory with an eternal universe because it kept that uncomfortably biblical picture of a universe with a Beginning at bay.  Wish fulfillment fantasies aren’t something only religious believers can fall for. Lemaître himself was very careful to say that his theory was based on hard scientific data and that it should not be used by believers to “prove” the doctrine of Creation since that doctrine is, at the end of the day, supernatural revelation and not science.  At best the Big Bang theory offers corroboration to the Church’s ancient insistence that the natural and supernatural revelation do not conflict.

 

At the same time, the other great irony of Msgr. Lemaître’s work is that many Catholics who reject biological evolution as somehow incompatible with the Faith (something the Church certainly does not teach) hold Lemaître aloft to prove that Catholics are not enemies of the sciences.  Yet they do not seem to realize that Lemaître’s work is simply the theory of evolution writ large and applied to the whole cosmos and not merely to the provincial doings on one tiny planet.

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