Faith and Science: Can we talk?

The Ken Ham / Bill Nye debate has been getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere over the last week or so. So many have commented on it that there is probably little I could add by way of critique, especially since our own Br. James Dominic Rooney, OP has already done an excellent job discussing theology in his "Science of Faith" post earlier this week.


St. Albert the GreatYet this debate is a good occasion for comment on the importance of the dialogue between faith and science, something I have grown increasingly interested in during the last year because of the St. Albert Province's "River Forest" school of Thomism heritage. Pope Francis' recent observations on this dialogue have only confirmed what I already suspected: the ability of the Church to dialogue with the sciences is of absolute necessity in the "new evangelization" that has been building steam over the last decade.  As preparation for future study and dialogue, I am attending a "philosophy of science" class  at Saint Louis University during this semester. What is the philosophy of science? It is a sub-field of philosophy which concerns itself with what science is and how legitimate scientific research is pursued. Its origins are in the so-called "enlightenment" period, coming of age only in the 20th Century. While it is still quite early in the semester, I have learned a great deal about the issues that are involved in science – the problems of induction and underdetermination, for instance – and how they have been approached by different philosophers.


While this sub-field is not relevant for most Catholics, it is indispensable for those who are interested in dialogue with the sciences. Why is this? I can think of at least two ways that those involved in faith-science dialogue could benefit.


First of all, most of the debates within the field of the philosophy of science come down to the question of what is human reason, and whether or not the scientific enterprise can be "cleansed" of its inductive, human element. A number of schools of thought reject this notion, instead maintaining that science is an imminently human enterprise and that it could not ever be pursued in a purely deductive fashion. Thus, I think knowledge of the philosophy of science "humanizes" the pursuit of scientific knowledge, encouraging humility amongst those who would idolize scientific research as the only "rational" means of obtaining knowledge about reality.


Second, and perhaps more importantly, the philosophy of science is a potentially "neutral" meeting ground for those who wish to dialogue about faith and science. Because most of those involved in the sciences normally have very little higher knowledge of the Christian faith, and most of those involved in theology normally have very little higher knowledge of the sciences, bringing discussions initially to the level of how human beings pursue scientific knowledge could allow for fruitful discussion about the human person in general.


This last point needs some clarification. There is, perhaps, already a lot of discussion in the realm of philosophy between Christians and non-Christians – I'm thinking of the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture, for instance. Yet I worry that this dialogue isn't attractive to those personally involved in the sciences. The philosophy of science might offer good way for scientists to directly translate their own experiences into a language that Christians can work with using the philosophical traditions of the Church.


Edward FeserThis is particularly true of Thomism, in fact, which borrows heavily from Aristotle for the sake of theology. Edward Feser notes in two talks on faith and reason (here and here) that there is a growing school of "new essentialist" philosophers (see Brian David Ellis, for instance) who are beginning to rediscover Aristotelian concepts through their own independent, secular philosophical work. There is a lot of potential here. If science is popularly considered as the primary means of investigating reality, and philosophers of science are finding that science must be underpinned by a "realist" philosophy akin to Aristotelianism, then perhaps there is arising a direct means for Christians to present the Catholic faith as worthy of consideration by those who hold science in such great esteem.


Before closing, this seems like a good opportunity to advertise a great podcast that I've been listening to for some time, "The Catholic Laboratory." These podcasts and the resources on the website are chock-full of information on the sciences, in general, but also on Catholic involvement in the sciences, in particular. I would also like to recommend readers to the website of Stacy Trasancos, who has recently published a book on Stanley L. Jaki, a Hungarian priest who worked in the sciences for some time and wrote many books about the philosophy and history of science. Her own book is only $5 on Kindle and is well worth a read.


Let us pray for people of good will everywhere who are searching sincerely for truth through the natural sciences that they may come to seek the Truth Who undergirds all of creation.