Fr Billy Swan
Science Week 2021 was celebrated from 7th to 14th November recently. To mark it, the Irish Times newspaper went on to the streets of Dublin to find out from young people how science can make our lives better. One young French student shared this view: ‘I think science could help in the field of abortion – to educate people and doctors to practice safe abortions’ (Irish Times, 9th Nov. 2021).
There are two main problems with this view of the purposes that science serves. These problems do not limit themselves to the controversial topic of abortion, but taint other areas of life as well. The first is that, in the case of abortion, science is being called on to justify what has been already decided to be morally acceptable. Science is employed to facilitate human acts of the will. It is like science is allowed late on the scene to back up what has already been declared to be true. Yet science, and the reason that underpins it, demand that science not be employed to justify, facilitate or legitimize patterns of human behaviour. Science must be allowed to inform human behaviour, teach us what is true, what exists, and what is real, before we arrive at a moral stance and decision. This is how it works in other areas, such as climate change. We gather the data, observe the patterns and the causes of climate change. This happens before we then consider what is the necessary moral response to the global crisis.
The second and related problem is the assumption that improvements in science have confirmed the views of those who deny that human life begins at the earliest stage stage of pregnancy. In fact, the opposite has transpired. Since abortion was legalized in Britain (1968), America (1973) and Ireland (2018), improved sonogram technology, scans and DNA profiling have all supported the claims of those who claim that life does in fact begin at conception..
In the recent debate about ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital, politicians scramble to assure the public that a Catholic ethos will not influence clinical and medical decisions. In the majority of media reportage, it is assumed that medical care independent of a religious ethos - and specifically a Catholic ethos - is reasonable and informed, while the Catholic position – on abortion and other life issues – is irrational and dangerous. But as time and science have evolved, the scientific evidence has made the position of Catholic Christianity stronger, not weaker. The weight of scientific evidence is in favour of Church teaching. This is a fact that many choose to ignore.
In the history of scientific understanding, this selective approach to scientific evidence and discovery is nothing new. Assumptions once held to uphold a worldview or philosophy have crumbled in the face of scientific evidence. Take for example the religious view, informed by the accounts of creation in the Bible, that the universe had a beginning, not in time but with time. In the19th and early part of the 20th century, this view was seriously challenged by an increasing appreciation of how old the universe actually is – at least 15 billion years old. It is so old, in fact, that some scientists concluded that the universe had to be infinite. In other words, the universe always was and always will be, with no beginning or end. Such a view supported an atheistic philosophy that excluded the possibility of a creator God. One of those who adopted this position was British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who said: “The universe is just there and that’s all” (Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copelston, ‘The Existence of God’ in John Hick, ed., The Existence of God (New York, Macmillan, 1964, 175).
Another physicist, Victor Stenger, said that the universe may be ‘uncaused’ and ‘may have emerged from nothing’ (Victor Stenger, ‘Has Science Found God?’, Free Enquiry, Vol. 19, no. 1). A more recent but similar interpretation was made by none other than Stephen Hawking, who believed that the universe had a beginning, but proposed that the laws of nature had given rise to the universe itself (Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions). This theory lacks credibility, for it denies the truth that the laws of nature were surely created with nature itself and did not exist prior to creation. Sometimes it appears that atheistic scientists are so determined to rule out the possibility of a creator God that they propose theories that are even more difficult to accept than faith in the God they strenuously deny. Even David Hume, one of the most skeptical of all philosophers, denied this position back in the 18th century when he wrote: ‘I have never asserted so absurd a proposition as that anything might arise without a cause’ (J.Y.T. Greid, ed., The Letters of David Hume, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1932, 187).
The theory that the universe had a beginning, roughly 15 billion years ago, troubled scientists who had long argued for the ‘steady state theory,’ which claimed that the universe had no beginning and no end. In the late 1920’s, Edward Hubble observed through a large telescope that galaxies were moving further away from each other with time – a phenomenon called ‘red shift’. Extrapolating backwards, if all the galaxies are moving away from each other as time advances, then back in time they were closer together - so close in fact that they had a common point of origin, more than 15 billion years ago. Later in the 20th century, Fr George Lamaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and scientist, proposed was became known as the ‘Big Bang’ theory, whereby the universe came into existence with a massive explosion of light and energy from a single primordial point at the beginning of time. It is because of this first explosion that the universe is still expanding, as seen with the movement of galaxies away from each other. The steady state theory was blown apart.
What all of this amounts to is that science, through its progressively improved understanding of the universe, seems to have edged to closer agreement with theology. Although the biblical accounts of creation (written about 2,500 years ago) were not composed with scientific evidence to hand, they do express an agreement between theology and the understanding of the universe at the time. The discovery in the last century that the universe had a beginning and will have an end, only confirms what theology has insisted for centuries to be true. In the words of astronomer Robert Jastrow: ‘For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak. As he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries’ (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, New York, W.W. Norton, 1992, 107).
Here is but one example of a scientific discovery that informs us of a truth that theology has claimed centuries beforehand. It urges science to be more humble and tentative in its claims, and highlights the need to consider both faith and reason as sources of truth.
A final point worth making is that unlike many scientists today who are militant atheists, many of the most brilliant scientists of the past were deeply religious people. I have already mentioned George Lamaitre, the Catholic priest who pioneered the ‘Big Bang theory.’ . Other examples include St Albert the Great, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Francis Collins and Mendel. These people and their discoveries show how science and religious faith are friends and not enemies in our search for truth. They also show how belief in the existence of God is a reasonable position to hold, to explain a universe that does not explain it self or does not cause itself.
The finding of modern physics that the universe had a beginning in space and time was perhaps one of the greatest discoveries ever made. For all who take the trouble to understand and reflect upon it, it provides powerful and convincing evidence of the existence of an eternal, supernatural being that created our world and everything in it.