Thursday, April 19, 2007

Brief Thoughts on Truth & Tolerance

In 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger published "Truth and Tolerance," a systematic review of the state of intereligious dialog and an overview of the challenges facing orthodox religion. One might say that his work in this volume was an attempt to discern order in the postmodern vacuum.

There are many tantalizing arguments in the book, but right now I would like to focus on some aspects of Chapter 2 of Part 2, "The Truth of Christianity."

Ratzinger opens with an account of a conversation between Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, and others. The group was informally addressing Einstein and Planck's insistence that there was no incompatibility between God and science. Heisenberg proposed that such a view was tenable if one considered science and religion as operating in two different spheres. Pauli seconded this notion but predicted a future breakdown of society due to an increasing incredulity in the tenets of religion.

In developing his argument from this opening citation, Ratzinger addresses the particularity of the "scientism" in relation to faith, as maintained in the Church. One of his early statements, in combination with the views of Heisenberg and Pauli, causes me to take issue with what I see as an underlying assumption in both Ratzinger and the scientists' views.

Ratzinger makes the statement "[religion] should not claim to be able to solve problems in areas that work by their own laws." One can certainly understand this view. After all, the Church is still trying to live down an overagressive reliance on ancient sources that affected primarily the medievals, but also the Church Fathers (witness Augustine's citation of the properties of the salamander and various notorious extrapolations by the neo-scholastics). Ratzinger later cites a "dialectic between subjective and objective reality," again tacitly accepting a dualism whose analog has been profoundly rejected in the body and soul of man.

While Cardinal Ratzinger's non-agressive approach to science is understandable, it is almost inexcusable among the scientists to establish a faith/reason dualism. Heisenberg, Pauli, et al, should have been the most likely of men to recognize that in overturning the Newtonian world, Quantum Mechanics was not setting itself up as either an alternative or a dialectic force. Rather, the hard scientific truths of quantum mechanics did not invalidate Newtonian physics, but transcended and permeated that science. Newtonian physics remained (and remains) in regular use, and for very good reasons. But that use has limitations, and it is beyond those limitations that quantum physics becomes sole possessor of scientific truth.

In exactly the same way, faith transcends but contains science. It is not, as Cardinal Ratzinger suggests, that faith should remain "hands-off" when it comes to mundane mechanics. Rather, it is that applying faith to such problems is like mowing the lawn with scissors. Faith, in its fullness, addresses all reality - whether that reality be phenomenon or nouomenon, ethic or moral, corporeal or spiritual. This does not invalidate science; rather, it supports and undergirds reason.

Just as man risks what Walker Percy called the "angelism/bestialism" rupture when he believes dualistically, so society risks culture war and an inevitable decline into chaos when faith is divorced from reason. As Ratzinger states in Part 1 of Truth and Tolerance, "Without faith, philosophy cannot be whole, but faith without reason cannot be human." Our difficulty in substituting the term "science" for "philosophy" in the above statement is that we do not consider philosophy (or reason/logic) to be "hard" in the same sense as the physical sciences. We divide science into those categories of hard and soft, and we apportion our respect (and obedience) to the former rather than the latter. But is this a justifiable distinction?

It is my argument that it is not. The "scientific method", so praised among our secular cousins, is equally applicable to both hard and soft sciences. The real distinction comes with the ability for physical control in experimentation. Hard scientific experiments, within a certain realm, are more readily quantified, and thus more readily validate hard scientific theories. But as all but the most dogmatic of scientists will admit, even with good data and impeccable controls, theory does not become law. Even Law is defined by observation, albeit overwhelming observation, and thus is susceptible to contradiction by subsequent evidence. In this sense, physical science is softer than philosophy, for philosophy operates (or should operate) in the abstract, in which absolutes are permissible.

But regardless of where one resides in the spectrum of hard/soft, reason/faith, it seems clear that there is no dialectic. For a dialectic consists in the opposition of objects. Historical determinism (strangely enough, the progenitor of relativism) saw that dialectic as progressing from equivocality to univocality, an explicit objectivism. But the dialectic cannot exist if there is a contemporary gradient, as there is in the case of hard science, soft science, and faith. To say that there are "things of the flesh" and "things of the spirit", to grant independent authority to the King and to God, or to say that it is possible to follow divergent praxis whether one is particularly subject to the City of Man or the City of God, is to ignore both the Pauline and Petrine assertions about the primacy of the spirit.

The mind of man, as wonderous as it is, strains to see the relation between the dictates of faith and the exigency of material conditions. And yet, from experience, we see that often the "revealed" character of faith provides valid answers that are only later (if at all) validated by science. The dietary restrictions of the semitic people are an excellent example of this.

But rather than recognizing the subtle way in which faith informs not only the "ought" but provides the noncategorical imperitive, we have had a tendency to focus on scriptural literalism, or post-scriptural dictates. We argue that the mustard seed is not, in fact, the smallest of seeds, and use that as a justification for claiming that Christ was no scientist. We mistake the Augustinian insistence on the literalism of genesis for a canonical statement. Historically, the supposed breach between science and faith just does not exist outside of the propaganda of the Enlightenment. The schism is a late development, and one imposed rather than natural.

We are living in a wondrous time, one in which many things are coming to fruition. The compatibility between faith and phenomenon has never been clearer. Yet it is just at this time that the insistence on dualism has become loudest. Science, like the flesh, is in a fallen state, infused with a diabolic (and very unscientific) dogma. Science, like the flesh, wars against faith. And faith, like the spirit, must embrace, contain, and subdue science. Separation is not feasible, for, to paraphrase Cardinal Ratzinger, without faith, science cannot be whole, but faith without science cannot be human.


Miguel Cuthbert said...

If I may comment on some tangential remarks you made.

1. In one way we do have to be able to separate the created world from the creator in that we don't want to confuse the two. However, to attempt to create a world which is entirely separate and independent of the creator is another mistake. God could not create a universe which he could not influence. In fact, he could not create a universe which he did not influence. This gets back to the whole "Can God create a rock so big he can't lift it?" Question. If there is one thing God can not do it is make himself not God. This property in no way limits God but makes God limitless.

It is not surprising then that God should be reflected in his creation (Rom 1:19-23). What is surprising is that we can't see this reflection very well. We must have conditioned our minds to not see the glory of God.

I agree with you that they were on the wrong track when they said the two must exist in different spheres. In fact one sphere entriely encloses the other. The limitations are imposed on science not on religion as it deals with only material activities: Cause and effect. (Its interesting that scientists dare to speak on the death of causation and so happily take Hume as champion.)

Science could be incorporated into a religious activity or vocation as a tool God puts at our disposal. But religion could never be said to be a scientific activity. Religion is concerned with purpose and activity both. Not just "How?" but "Why?"

To say that there is a place where religion should not enter is equivalent to saying there is a place man must not enter because man always carries his religion with him wherever he goes.

2. Dualism has always been a particular danger. A sure sign of insanity is when someone begins to ask questions like "Is this me?" or "Who am I?" Worse is still is the tendency to split the mind up into various impulses and levels of consciousness. The very fact that a mind may reflect on itself seems to throw all linear theories of the psychology out the window. We can not see what we see with. We can not perceive what we perceive with. We can only study ourselves in an abstract sense and the abstraction is not the same.

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