Don't Let Science Get You Down, Timothy: A Light-Hearted (But Deadly Serious) Dialogue on Science, Faith, and Culture

By Jean F. Drew and Sandi Venable 


An excerpt from the Authors’ Foreword  

Western civilization is the unique product of an astonishing synthesis of faith and reason. The roots of Western order can be traced back to three historical cities: Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Each of these cites in its time of maximum flourishing was the scene of tremendous spiritual and intellectual outbursts that transformed the world of their day, and which continue to shape the Western mind in modern times. Indeed, their lasting influence is unparalleled in human history, giving rise to the magnificent achievements of systematic science, of advanced modern technology; of the flourishing of the arts and literature, of philosophy and theology, of political theory; and of widespread economic prosperity.

Consider the experience of the United States of America. The United States is unique in the historical community of nations because it is the only sovereign nation whose founding was sui generis: self-created in a single act. This act was the ratification of the United States Constitution, completed on June 21, 1788.

The Framers of the Constitution believed — they had faith — that their construction was eminently reasonable. You can see that in the constitutional architecture they designed, evident in the separation and balance of powers, of the ubiquitous checks and balances built into the system, so to disperse the consolidation of lawless power over a people who would be free. They had such confidence in their idea of ordered liberty that it is now fashionable to regard them as “children of the Enlightenment.”

This characterization is fair but incomplete. What is frequently overlooked in our own day is the fact, made plain in the Declaration of Independence, that the Framers were the brilliant inheritors of a tradition far older than that of the Enlightenment philosophes of 18th-century Europe — which was a “spiritual outburst,” too, though evidently of a different sort. For the philosophes seem to have been dedicated to the project of moving the universe from a God-centered to a man-centered conceptual framework.

For the Framers, human reason itself was understood as a gift of God. Such men as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Jay, Hamilton et al. believed that God is the Creator of the universe, and of man; and that God made man imago Dei, “in his image”; that is, possessing reason and free will as his natural birthright. On this understanding the Framers believed that the human person is innately endowed with certain inalienable rights — preeminently life, liberty, and the “pursuit of happiness” … — that may not be violated, abridged, nor tampered with by any other man or temporal authority with impunity. The heritage of Jerusalem and Athens — Judeo-Christian theology, together with its appropriation and synthesis of classical metaphysics — is the philosophical rock on which the Constitution was built.

The Framers and their generation were also people of faith. It took a whole lot of sheer faith to forge a new nation conceived in Liberty, one dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal because they are all equally the children of God. And thus the idea of a dynamic rule of law of, by, and for a sovereign people under a system of equal justice for all men, not an arbitrary rule of kings exercising their authority over other (unequal) men “by divine right,” was born.

The Framers — and the educated public of their time — were people of faith and reason. By their time reason had been definitively formed from ancient and classical sources, preeminently by classical Greek philosophy, principally by Plato and Aristotle.… …

Plato and Aristotle set the very foundations of modern science, from roughly the fourth century before the coming of Christ. Before them such notable pre-Socratic natural philosophers as Democritus and Heraclitus were already speculating about some of the greatest questions of science that are still being investigated today; i.e., atomic theory and thermodynamics respectively.

Educated people of the time of the American founding resonated to other sublime sources from the ancient world as well, that is to the Holy Scriptures above all, and also to the great epics, myths, tragedies, and histories (Israelite, Greek, and Roman) whose essential concern was ever the human person and his condition, understood as universal to all men and women of all times.

Rome early in its history was organized according to republican principles, and flourished. Yet historically literate Americans of the founding period well understood how fragile republics can be, when their people fail to uphold the norms, values, and ethics that conduce to the republican ideal and thus to human liberty: When these fail, tyranny must follow. Rome — and Athens, too — are the classical object lessons of how great societies, great human cultures, great political orders, fail and fall, with all the disorder that inevitably follows in the human sphere when such catastrophes occur.

The Framers in their time were vitally attentive to new developments in philosophy and science then breaking in Europe. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin was regarded in Europe as well as America as one of the leading scientists of his day. Still one imagines these gentlemen might have taken the following observation of the brilliant French mathematician Marquis Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) with a grain of salt:

“Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective positions of the beings which compose it, if moreover this intelligence were vast enough to submit these data to analysis … to it nothing would be uncertain, and the future as the past would be present to its eyes.”  

The Framers to a man might have thought: This Laplace desires to ascend to the very throne of God himself. For the “observer” he describes must be divine to instantaneously comprehend “all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective positions of the beings which compose it,” let alone possess an intellect vast enough to submit all such data “to analysis.”

The Framers, however, well understood that men were men, flawed mortals — not angels, let alone omniscient gods. They believed, in the full light of reason, in the dignity and sanctity of the individual, and that a rule of equal justice under divine law is indispensable to the thriving of free human beings, and to the free political and social communities and institutions that free human beings are enabled to form together for the common good.

Evidently Laplace believed that once the human mind was freed of superstition, then human knowledge could become exact, “objective,” and thus certain. Yet in order for there to be “certainty” of human knowledge, it would be necessary for the human observer to magically detach himself from his necessary condition as part and participant in the universal whole, so to find some “Archimedean point” outside the universe from which to view the totality of all that exists as if he were completely independent of it. In effect such an observer, or “intelligence,” would have to escape the constraints of four-dimensional space-time entirely in order to occupy such a vantage point.

But such a goal must be unmet, for it is strictly impossible: We never can step outside the universe so to view it entire in all its contingent, ceaseless flux. Furthermore, the operations of the human mind itself are irremovable participating events in the structure that we observe.

Laplace’s model of the universe was mechanistic, a clockwork universe. He took his cues from Newtonian mechanics, but apparently thought that Sir Isaac Newton’s theological speculations were irrelevant to problems in science. This in all likelihood was simply an unwarranted dismissal on Laplace’s part, of things that weren’t relevant for him, given his aims.

Newton himself evidently thought that the physical laws were elucidations of divine intent with respect to creation: It was this belief that principally motivated his search for the fundamental physical laws. Later he worried about increases in natural disorder occasioned by the regular operation of the mechanical laws he had discovered, thinking that God might have to step in every now and then to set things aright again in the natural world. Newton’s reveries on these matters seemingly are not recalled in modern scientific textbooks.

Unfortunately, it seems the roots of Western — and American — civilizational order are not much taught in any systematic way these days, neither in the taxpayer-funded public schools nor in the colleges and universities. Instead, it seems a Laplacean style of thought — logical positivism — is relentlessly promulgated, which seeks to rationalize all of nature by presuming it to be wholly physical and mechanistic, thereby draining it of metaphysical or spiritual extensions or implications. In this way it is thought that science can attain complete “objectivity.”

And yet as Dean Overman has pointed out, “complete objectivity in science is an illusion.” To say that all of nature is reducible to accidental material causes is itself a metaphysical or spiritual statement, belief in which is in essence an act of faith. Yet this is a statement that must be made, if we are to dispense with what Laplace called “the ‘God’ hypothesis,” of which he confidently claimed he had no need at all: Reason, logic, and the materialist presupposition are all that is required to unlock the secrets of nature. But as noted, this is a faith statement, not a scientific one. A practical question instantly arises: If the universe is material and essentially accidental in its origin and evolution, then how do we account for logic and reason? If logical thinking is an accident, then how can we depend on it to be trustworthy? And if logic is not trustworthy, then how can we regard science itself as trustworthy, since it is preeminently a grand edifice raised on the foundations of logic and reason?

What Laplace’s methodology mainly boils down to is the denigration of faith, the assertion that it be regarded as an obstacle on the path of valid knowledge. As if faith and reason could ever really be separated: Indeed, Laplace couldn’t separate them even in his own case.

Thus we think that faith and reason ought best to be understood as mutually complementary, not as mutually exclusive. This understanding is the fundamental thesis of this book.

We chose to use the dialogue form for the main narrative, because that allows different characters with different perspectives to come “on stage” and argue with each other. We like that sort of thing ourselves. We have four characters in the main narrative, each expressing his/her own experience, expertise, and point of view. Our hope is that the reader will regard himself as the fifth member of this dialogue.

None of the issues addressed by the characters is “settled” as far as we can see — not in science, nor in philosophy, nor in cosmology. So we don’t “tell” truths here, we don’t propose “final answers” to the questions broached in these pages. We are not system builders by any far stretch of the imagination. Rather, we prefer to point out certain things we have noticed that seem of critical importance to us, invite the reader to go look, and then make up his/her own mind. It seems to us the greatest questions about the universe and of man’s place in it are ever “open” questions. For the truth of reality is never a final possession of mankind, but an ever-ongoing, human quest of millennial duration (so far). Your own insights into these questions help constitute the record of that quest. * * * * * * *

Table of Contents Authors’ Foreword Prologue Dramatis Personae The Scene The Dialogue The so-called “Cartesian Split” What is “all that there is?” Pure, blind chance? First reality and second realities What is knowledge? Does science “have it in” for God? Is Intelligent Design science? What is matter? What lies at the beginning of “all that there is?” Aristotle’s Four Causes What is “randomness?” First Adam, Second Adam Is science “killing the soul?” The Public Square: a “values-neutral zone?” What is science? What is the universe? What is life? What is reality? Endnotes  

Appendix Nuts and Bolts Numbers Big and Small Combinatorics, Probability Theory, and the Observer Problem Shannon Information and Complex Systems Theory On Complementarity: A Tale of Two Friends  

Myths and Speculations Scientific Cosmologies Cosmology Ancient and Modern The Metaxy: Plato’s Model of Psyche The Condicio Humana On Liberty and Human Dignity Afterword