Sunday, April 04, 2010

An Easter Post [by Anthony McCarthy]

I was going to do an Easter post today, had lots of ideas. First was a book report on Home by Marilynne Robinson, which is the most profoundly spiritual book I’ve read in, perhaps, my life. But that will have to wait. I’ve found, since reading one of her books, that when I read one for the first time I need to go back and re-read all of them, which I’m doing now.

Then I was going to rant about topics I’ve ranted about here before, but would rather get my onions in the garden today. NOT that I don’t have more to say on that subject. But I might do that in a different venue from now on.

But, then, I turned on the radio while I did some spring cleaning and came across this program, "Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God.", from American Public Media. Krista Tippett interviewed the astronomers, Father George Coyne and Brother Guy Consolmagno.*

Here, from the transcript, is the part that most caught my attention.

Fr. Coyne: Tries to abstract in order to further understand the beauty. And I think I can't talk to Galileo now, but I think that was the idea that Galileo had when, you know, that famous phrase of mathematics is the language of the universe.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Br. Consolmagno: We have a mathematician on our staff among the dozen Jesuits, and he's pointed out this marvelous argument that mathematicians have: Is a mathematical truth discovered or invented? Was it there before a mathematician realized it, or is it something that is a product of the human mind?

Ms. Tippett: Don't most people think it's discovered?

Br. Consolmagno: There's an awful lot that's invented too.

Fr. Coyne: Depends on what you mean by post. It's a classical and still enduring debate as to whether mathematics is intrinsic to the universe or whether the human brain is such that it imposes ù it's too strong a word ù imposes mathematical structure on the universe.

Ms. Tippett: And so à

Br. Consolmagno: One of the issues à

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Br. Consolmagno: One of the issues we always have as scientists when we're trying to extract a generalization from the data is, is the generalization really there or is it just us finding faces in the clouds. And sometimes it turns out that we get fooled and we see generalizations that aren't there.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, did Einstein discover or invent the laws of physics? He discovered them, didn't he?

Fr. Coyne: Ohhh. You know, this is debatable, Krista.

Br. Consolmagno: Because of course his laws of physics aren't the final answer.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

This reminded me strongly of these two passages from Arthur Stanley Eddington’s essay, Science and the Unseen World given almost ninety years ago.

Penetrating as deeply as we can by the methods of physical investigation into the nature of a human being we reach only symbolic description. Far from attempting to dogmatise as to the nature of the reality thus symbolised. Physics most strongly insists that its methods do not penetrate behind the symbolism. Surely then that mental and spiritual nature of ourselves, known in our minds by an intimate contact transcending the methods of physics, supplies just that interpretation of the symbols which science is admittedly unable to give. It is just because we have a real and not merely a symbolic knowledge of our own nature that our nature seems so mysterious; we reject as inadequate that merely symbolic description which is good enough for dealing with chairs and tables and physical agencies that affect us only by remote communication


The study of the visible universe may be said to start with the determination to use our eyes. At the very beginning there is something which might be described as an act of faith a belief that what our eyes have to show us is significant. I think it can be maintained that it is by an analogous determination that the mystic recognises another faculty of consciousness, and accepts as significant the vista of a world outside space and time that it reveals. But if they start alike, the two outlets from consciousness are followed up by very different methods; and here we meet with a scientific criticism which seems to have considerable justification. It would be wrong to condemn alleged knowledge of the unseen world because it is unable to follow the lines of deduction laid down by science as appropriate to the seen world; but inevitably the two kinds of knowledge are compared, and I think the challenge to a comparison does not come wholly from the scientists. Reduced to precise terms, shorn of words that sound inspiring but mean nothing definite, is our scheme of knowledge of what lies in the unseen world, and of its mode of contact with us, at all to be compared with our knowledge (imperfect as it is) of the physical world and its interaction with us? Can we be surprised that the student of physical science ranks it rather with the vague unchecked conjectures in his own subject, on which he feels it his duty to frown? It may be that, in admitting that the comparison is unfavourable, I am doing an injustice to the progress made by systematic theologians and philosophers; but at any rate their defence had better be in other hands than mine.

Although I am rather in sympathy with this criticism of theology, I am not ready to press it to an extreme. In this lecture I have for the most part identified science with the physical science. This is not solely because it is the only side for which I can properly speak. But because it is generally agreed that physical science comes nearest to that complete system of exact knowledge which all sciences have before them as an ideal. Some fall far short of it. The physicist who inveighs against the lack of coherence and the indefiniteness of theological theories, will probably speak not much less harshly of the theories of biology and psychology. They also fail to come up to his standard of methodology. On the other side of him stands an even superior being - the pure mathematician - who has no high opinion of the methods of deduction used in physics, and does not hide his disapproval of the laxity of what is accepted as proof in physical science. And yet somehow knowledge grows in all of these branches. Wherever a way opens we are impelled to seek by the only methods that can be devised for that particular opening, not over-rating the security of our finding, but conscious that in this activity of mind we are obeying the light that is in our nature.

So, maybe this will stand for a long, perhaps unreadable, Easter essay. Or, if you want to save time you could read the “Twitter script” of the show, which isn’t all that bad, though I’d recommend at least reading the whole thing or, best of all, listening to it online.

* It’s one of the useless distractions from the crimes of the Vatican hierarchy that the issue is used by the most primitive of anti-Catholics to bring up all of the collected clap trap of inaccurate, often fabricated folk lore about “the church”. While telling the truth about anything is justification enough to do it, repeating what isn’t true can’t be helpful. As if there isn’t enough accurate information to form an indictment of Ratzinger and his Bishops. And the folklore seldom deals with the most important fact of that indictment, THE CHILDREN AND OTHER VICTIMS OF THE CRIMINALS. Using them for any other purpose is opportunism, it is using them.

It’s a crime that these two articulate, rational Catholics aren’t representative of those holding offices in the Vatican. But they do show that the worst of the politicians in those positions aren’t the whole of Catholicism. Not by a long shot. The rigid, Integralist, viewpoint isn’t dominant in the culture of Catholicism. When someone angrily wants to know why people don’t leave the church, this could provide an answer.