This Sunday 15th November sees the conclusion of the 25th annual ‘Science Week’ that is organized by the Science Foundation of Ireland. For Christians, this was a week to join with our friends to celebrate and marvel at the great advancements of science that has made human life so much better here on earth. We need only to think of the progress in medicine, communications, computing and technology that traces weather change and climate change. These are but some examples of the great advancements that science has produced and that we benefit from every day.
It is important for us Christians and especially Catholics to take science seriously. Too many believers pay little attention to the world of science while too many scientists pay little attention to the world of faith and religion. This gulf needs to be bridged by those who see both as important and both as routes to arrive at the fullness of truth. For the scientist and believer, the truth of how things exist and why they exist, is not drawn from two separate wells. There is but one source of truth who is God. Therefore, the truth discovered by science and the truth held by our faith should not contradict each other. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth” (CCC 159).
In the Catholic Tradition in particular, the study of the natural world has always been encouraged and considered important. Coming up from the Jewish faith tradition of our ancestors, the observance of the natural world leads to awe and wonder of what is observed and leads to faith in and praise of the Creator God who is responsible for it all. Our faith in the incarnation of the Word forces us to take the material world very seriously because when Christ became a human being, God not only united Himself to all humanity but also to all of the material world, raising the dignity of matter and all creation to a new height. For these reasons and many more, we celebrate Science Week.
All that said, there is one issue we need to be clear about, namely the fallacy of scientism. Scientism is the theory that science and science alone can tell us all there is to know. The famous atheistic scientist Richard Dawkins is a proponent of this view as is the chemist Peter Atkins who once said: ‘There is no reason to expect that science cannot deal with any aspect of existence’. On the ‘Science Foundation of Ireland’ website that promotes ‘Science Week’, there is a slogan to the fore which reads ‘#Believe in Science’. What struck me about this slogan is its quasi-religious content. The suggestion is that we should believe in science instead of God because science has all the answers. This binary choice tries to convince us that faith in science is opposed to faith in a Creator God. We must chose one above the other. Here I argue that this is a phoney choice because scientism is false – we cannot and will not be able to arrive at the fullness of truth by science alone.
For example, science can tell us that the seas and the atmosphere are warming up and so the climate is changing. It can tell us what is causing this and inform us about what to do about it. However, science doesn’t tell us about the rights of all human beings; or about the preferential option for the poor or about the meaning of life, the power of love, the reality of suffering, the existence of evil, etc. I love the analogy of Edward Feser who pointed out: ‘A metal detector is a perfect tool to locate metals but that does not mean there is nothing more to this world than what metal detectors can detect’.
Therefore, we need to know both the gift of science and the limits of science as well. Science has many answers but it has not all of them. There are fundamental questions about our existence that science cannot address and that we need some religious system to answer them. These questions are informed by science but science alone cannot answer them. Faith contains reason but also transcends reason as the human spirit ascends to the truth. In the words of St John Paul II: ‘Faith and reason and the two wings with which the human spirit can ascend and find the truth’ (Fides et Ratio, 1). The following insight by another pope is particularly helpful to illustrate the same point: ‘True science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree – as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science’ (Pope Pius XII).
The ultimate end of both our scientific and religious journey is loving union with our Creator God, the source of all life, truth, the designer of all there is and sustainer of all that exists. Scientific discoveries, once they respect their own limits and respect wider moral and ethical issues, lead us to a spirit of awe and wonder and to marvel of the splendours we see before us. In the words of the Catechism:
“These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me” (CCC, 283).
To conclude. We give thanks for Science Week and for the gift of science and human intelligence. Science is given to us by God as a way of allowing us to know Him more. But science cannot and does not replace God. Yes, believe in science but believe also in God whom we know better by observing his own handiwork. This is what science really is – the observance of God’s handiwork.
‘In a fresh and astounding way, reading and studying the book of creation has caused my head to bow, my knees to bend, my will to yield, may hands to serve, my mind to worship and my heart to fall in love all over again with the One whose glory is revealed in the heavens!’ (Anne Graham Lotz).
Fr Billy Swan