Lesson 5: Critique of the Foundations of Contemporary Natural Science

1) If a theologian is to "interpret the Gospel to our culture (or cultures)" the most difficult task is to make spiritual truth credible to our modern world that is dominated by modern science and its technology, since these are usually understood in an exclusively materialistic way. Until about 1700 this split between religion and science hardly existed and the originators of modern science, such as Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton supposed that by showing the wonders of creation they would lead people to the praise of the Creator. Yet as Cartesian idealism and British Empiricism developed in the Enlightenment they became antagonistic to all revealed religion. At first they continued to accept a deistic God who made the world like a perpetual motion machine and then left it to run on its own. Thus man's hope to control the world by technology took the place of reliance on the power of the Creator.

2) Was this divorce of religion and science inevitable? Modern historians of science have shown that it did not arise from the heliocentric theory of Copernicus and the Galileo Case, as is often alleged, though that scandal dramatized it. In fact Galileo's discovery through the use of the telescope of the sunspots was the major fact that exploded Aristotle's steady-state theory of the universe and its inalterable heavenly spheres. Unfortunately this scandal caused the abandonment not only of the steady-state theory that Aquinas had already shown to be merely a hypothesis but also of Aristotle's much better grounded analysis of the foundations of natural science in the nature of changeable being. This foundational part of natural science came to be replaced by a mechanistic view derived from the ancient materialist, Democritus, and favored by Descartes. This uncritical mechanistic view of the foundations of natural science has ever since left modern science open to the confusions of the extreme epistemologies of idealism and empiricism and placed science in opposition to belief in God as spiritual first cause of physical reality. (Note that the required reading from the text of Stanley Jaki gives a somewhat different account of this historical development but comes to the same principal conclusion).

3) The dilemmas that mechanism produced for modern science as it rapidly advanced in its detailed discoveries made possible by mathematization and the use of artificial techniques of observation and experimentation became evident at the end of the twentieth century with the new relativity physics of Einstein and the quantum physics of Heisenberg. It has become clear that the mechanistic notions of absolute time and space and of the absolute determinism of natural laws has produced such contradictory notions in scientific theory as the assertion that time is not real, that space is both empty and filled, that physical reality depends on the human observer, that an infinity of possible worlds are constantly being created, and that the universe "just happened." None of these absurdities need follow from the actual discoveries of modern science but are due to conceptual confusions about its foundational concepts and principles. The truth of these principles must rest on an analysis of natural sense observation of changeable being prior to artificial observation, experimentation, or mathematization. If this foundational analysis is not sound, nothing else in natural science can be critically established. Theologians, therefore, should not naively build their views on the alleged results of modern science without understanding this foundational critique.

Readings

1) William A. Wallace, O.P. The Modeling of Nature (Washington, DC.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996) Chapter 6, "Defining the Philosophy of Science pp. 197-237.

2) Dulles, Craft of Theology, pp. 135-148, not identical with position taken in this course but helpful.

Questions

1) What did the founders of modern science think about the relation of science and religion?

2) What caused the break between modern science and religion?

3) What is meant by the "foundational principles and concepts" of natural science?

4) Are natural science and religion on such different planes that there is no contact between them?

5) How is the Biblical view of creation related to modern science and the theory of the Big Bang?

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