November 30th 2019


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COVER STORY Can we put the 'care' back into aged care?

EDITORIAL Bushfires: One step forwards, one step backwards

ENVIRONMENTALISM Activists and courts give sharks the last laugh

CANBERRA OBSERVED ALP's self-examination will entice no one back

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal to go to the High Court

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Deaths after Fukushima due to excessive caution

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Geopolitics, oligarchs and the Moldova miracle

ENVIRONMENT Into the unknown: Should we prepare for climate change or climate variability?

LAW AND SOCIETY Crime and punishment: Are we de-civilising?

WATER POLICY Drought relief still leaves too much water going to waste

ASIAN AFFAIRS Destination Oz: Flood of Hong Kong emigres may restart

HUMOUR MacStuttles, me ol' China

MUSIC Subliminal workhorse: An art takes the backseat

CINEMA Dr Sleep: Kubrick 'shined' from his rest

BOOK REVIEW Science and religion, with mutual respect

BOOK REVIEW A borrowed term for a socialist recipe

POETRY

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

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BOOK REVIEW
Science and religion, with mutual respect




News Weekly, November 30, 2019

PARTICLES OF FAITH: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science

by Stacy A. Trasancos

Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana
Paperback: 192 pages
Price: AUD$34.95

Reviewed by John Long

Until recently, if anyone asked me where to start in learning about science’s historical and philosophical links to Christianity, I would refer him to Fr Stanley Jaki’s book Savior of Science. Now I would advise first to read Stacy Trasancos’ book, Particles of Faith, then read Jaki.

Without some prior familiarity with both physics and philosophy, Jaki makes for hard reading. This second book of Trasancos aims to bring what Fr Jaki taught her about the relationship between science and Christianity to a younger generation, particularly those with no more training in science than to year 12 or first-year university. She also tries to explain to the reader her own thoughts on the matter, in light of her experience as a research chemist, her university studies, and later conversion to Catholicism.

This book does more than explain some of Jaki’s main points on how one should navigate the treacherous waters of the theology-science debate: she adds a number of points of her own on topics of interest to the reader, points not necessarily covered in detail by Jaki the physicist.

The book is divided into three parts: bits of her personal story in light of her lifetime passion for science (chemistry) and some philosophical foundations; answering questions young people pose about faith and the physical sciences; and dealing with questions from biology, especially the creationist/evolutionist debate.

The first chapter describes Trasancos’ journey from undergraduate biology student to chemistry teacher to highly cited research scientist, publishing in highly prestigious journals in chemistry, and earning a doctorate in chemistry from Penn State University in the United States. She completed some very impressive work on artificial photosynthesis and, if one were to calculate the “impact” of her scientific work, it would be at least five times higher than mine.

She threw her heart and soul into chemistry and her research but, on one fateful occasion, she looked up from her lab and saw the forest rather than just the trees. Actually, it was a whole tree instead of the biochemistry in the leaves; and, without God, all she saw was a chasm: “The tree held the truth about nature, the truth that nature is created, and it was frightening to face God like that.”

She came to realise that, while her work was unlocking some of nature’s hidden secrets, and even mastering them on a molecular level, the problem of her ultimate purpose, the “why”, would not go away.

She points out that, in addition to the fact that in scientific work the success rate is 1 per cent on average, “for a scientist who does not believe in God or creation, there is an additional monumental burden: you do not even know why the truths you are striving to discover are there; you have no fundamental explanation for why you care about science.”

Eventually this question “why” caught up with her, and she answered it by becoming a Catholic.

The next two chapters discuss the relationship between science and the Catholic faith. Trasancos begins with a discussion of scientism, which is the philosophical position that science alone answers the questions of life, the universe and everything. She identifies various factions in the raging debate of science versus religion – atheistic and theistic scientists, creationists, intelligent-design followers, others who try to stay out of the fight, and still others (herself included) trying to steer science on a more sensible course by pointing out that there is no real conflict between good science and good religious faith.

She introduces some concepts that she learned from reading Jaki’s writings, and notes the Church’s constant teaching that faith and reason (including scientific reasoning) are both necessary for a full understanding of our existence. “Reason alone is not enough. Faith alone is not enough. We need both to be fully human.”

She advises readers starting out in a journey to reconcile faith and science to know first what the Church teaches, understand how it sorts out dogma from opinion, and also to learn the science properly, which is no easy task and takes a very long time.

My only criticism is that I found Trasancos’ next point rather hard to follow. She leads the reader in a lengthy discussion on what she calls the “system of wills”. This is to reconcile God’s free will in his governing creation without at the same time denying cause and effect, essential ingredients for our understanding of scientific law.

Just as a footy player can choose to kick a ball in a particular direction without breaking any natural laws, God can direct his creation without breaking his natural laws either. This includes periodic interventions we call miracles.

“Free agents with free will and intellect, made in the image and likeness of God, can move matter too. We are part of the greater system of wills. When God intervenes to move matter, he does not break the laws of nature. Rather, his will represents the supreme law.” She uses this concept later on in dealing with two important questions in physics and biology.

The real meat in this book is parts two and three, in which Trasancos addresses seven important questions that young science-savvy Catholics (indeed, Christians in general) ask. Part II as a physicist I can comment on; part III less so.

Central to the arguments in both, one finds Fr Jaki’s insistence that, even though there is only one truth, the respective areas of competence of science and theology need to be kept separate so that they can do their jobs properly. Whenever frail humanity allows the two to get mixed up, confusion results.

So, in a discussion on whether or not the well-established Big-Bang theory (first proposed by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, and experimentally supported by the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation) proves that the universe was created by God, all one can say is that the Big-Bang theory is not inconsistent with the Christian doctrine of Creation. Indeed, Trasancos relates the story that when Pope Pius XII enthusiastically endorsed the Big-Bang theory as scientific evidence for the existence of God, Lemaître sharply advised him to back off, if for no other reason than because scientific theories are always subject to change as new discoveries are made.

Christian doctrine says that one can come to know God by contemplating the physical world, but this is philosophy, not science. Trasancos puts it this way: “Does the Big Bang prove God? I [say] that it does, but only in the same way a sunset does. Physical science can provide inductive evidence to corroborate and complement a deductive claim that God created the universe.”

On the flip side of the coin, a couple of chapters later she addresses the question whether the fuzziness of physical measurements as revealed by quantum mechanics can help explain free will in the sense that it allows for “uncaused” events to take place. At the heart of the argument is the Copenhagen interpretation of Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, which sets a limit at the precision with which one can measure speed and position at the atomic level.

Jaki stressed time and again that Heisenberg’s apparent overthrow of cause and effect is based on a fundamental mistake in logic: that even if one cannot measure something exactly, it does not follow that the event cannot happen exactly. Trasancos explains this concept with help from her system of wills. “Quantum mechanics cannot explain free will because the explanation for free will does not belong to physics.”

To comment on the last section of this book, especially the discussion of evolution, is largely beyond the competence of this simple country physicist. But central to the message, as Jaki and others have pointed out, is the need to let science do science, and let theology do theology, each without interference from the other.

Her training in biology qualifies Trasancos to describe the basic principles of evolution theory, and it is a fact that most, if not all, research and advances in biological technology do so within an evolutionary perspective. Granted, I am as uncomfortable as any other Christian with the thought of being a distant cousin to Lancelot Link (secret chimp). While science can comment on early populations and perhaps their movements many thousands of years ago, it cannot find Adam and Eve because that is not its business.

Trasancos writes: “Are creationism and intelligent design correct? I say, no. Creationists seem to reject science because they fear it can prove faith wrong. Intelligent design theorists … rely on science to tell us what faith already does.”

Jaki solves the theological and philosophical problem posed by evolution theory in the same manner – separating the science (generally good) from the philosophy (generally bad). In fact, in one of his essays, he goes so far as to propose a “non-Darwinian Darwinism”. In his later writings, Jaki often quoted an old Portuguese proverb: “God writes straight along crooked lines.”

Perhaps the central message of this book is that, “physical and biological sciences are limited to questions about the material realm. Metaphysics, philosophy, and theology are separate disciplines with their own methods. They deal with meaning, purpose, and destiny and are broader endeavours than physical or biological science.”

In discourse concerning science and faith, it is important to get that distinction right. Particles of Faith goes a long way down that path in a most readable and personal style.

The best endorsement I can give for this book is to recommend that my children read it. In this age of unbelief and confusion, it should be available on the shelves of every Catholic bookshop.

John Long has undergraduate qualifications in physics and philosophy from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in physics from Monash University. He has taught physics and engineering at an Australian university for over 20 years.


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