Scientific Knowledge, Scientific Methods

Fr. Georges Lemaître, father of the Big Bang and Catholic priest, with fellow physicist Albert Einstein.

Discovering Truth in the Material World

In our first consideration of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s lecture entitled “Christianity and Physical Science”, we focused on the commonly held, rarely questioned pair of presuppositions that color much of our world today: first that there is inherent conflict between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge and therefore between science and religion; and second that all of reality is material, that the supernatural is not a valid part of reality.

In a most natural, confident, and rational manner Newman addressed both presuppositions head on, showing that they are simply untrue. Rather, he saw that both types of knowledge tell us about different parts of the larger reality, with different starting points and different methods, working towards different types of conclusions. Different, yet not in conflict. Complementary parts describing a larger whole.

The one looks at observable data, the other revelation; science develops theories and tests models based on that observable data, theology reasons from the data of revelation; science begins with the world around us and reasons from there, theology begins with the ultimate end (the meaning of life) and reasons towards us; scientific reasoning is primarily inductive and theology primarily deductive.

“In short, science and theology start from the opposite ends of almost every question and reason towards each other, applying reasoning techniques particularly suited to each.

In other words, in order to reason about the meaning of our lives we need to mainly rely upon theology. With this in mind, we propose the claims of Easter worth considering for anyone who has limited themselves, intentionally or simply by going with the flow of the times, to primarily considering the claims of the material world.

Religion Distrusts Science?

Still, inherent mistrust and unfamiliarity can be hard to overcome. In scientific and technology circles it is rather common for a religious person to be in the distinct minority, perhaps even in a diminishingly small group, more of a curiosity than direct threat. As such we may encounter some variant of a third claim: a prejudice against the religious in scientific circles:

“Anyone who takes theological knowledge seriously will not trust scientific knowledge, may even try to make religious claims about science, proposing myths instead of hard, scientific facts.”

If not the claim directly, then perhaps a bias against the scientific credibility of any religious person, a bias held but not directly spoken. Such an implicit bias is fairly common these days, and becoming more so.

The irony is that the exact opposite is true. With Newman the serious Catholic scientist holds scientific knowledge and the methods of science in high regard, when applied to the material world. In other words, for scientific knowledge, ask a scientist!

Newman confidently and naturally states the folly of doing otherwise:

“… the most learned of dogmatic and mystical divines,—St. Augustine, St. Thomas,—will not on that score know more than a peasant about the laws of motion, or the wealth of nations.”

Fr. Lemaître delivering a physics lecture

With Blessed Newman we ought to take a balanced, rational approach to knowledge. For scientific questions about the material world we primarily rely upon science and scientific methods. When the questions turn to the meaning of life and the supernatural, we confidently rely upon religious knowledge and methods.

As Newman observes …

“The Hindu notion is said to be that the earth stands upon a tortoise; but the physicist, as such, will never ask himself by what influence, external to the universe, the universe is sustained; simply because he is a physicist.

“If indeed he be a religious man, he will of course have a very definite view of the subject; but that view of his is private, not professional,—the view, not of a physicist, but of a religious man; and this, not because physical science says anything different, but simply because it says nothing at all on the subject, nor can do so by the very undertaking with which it set out.”

Balance and Good Order Are Essential

This balance is not only convenient or pleasant, it is essential. For example, we can look to a geneticist to tell us how to genetically manipulate a person’s DNA, yet we best ask others when it comes to whether we ought to genetically manipulate a person’s DNA.

In the next consideration in this series we will begin to look more closely at practical applications of this balance, of this interplay between science and religion.


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