Pope Benedict and Nature’s Genius

It has been one year since Pope Benedict XVI’s ill-starred Regensburg Address. We say “ill-starred” because the media fixated on a side comment the pope made about Islam, apparently to clinch a depiction of the pope as intolerant. In the process, they obscured the luminous center of the pope’s speech, the relationship of science and reason to faith. Since his insights on this subject were brushed over and forgotten in many quarters, they’re worth returning to now, one year later.

The core of the speech is more apropos than ever. As anyone following the bestseller list can attest, atheism is big business, and the big atheists — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens — all argue that science and reason confirm a singularly important truth: God does not exist. Nature does not proclaim the glory of God, they insist; instead, science unambiguously declares His absence. But for Benedict, the faith of the modern atheist results from having inherited a stunted view of science, one rooted in a correspondingly shrunken view of reason. If we open reason up to its natural and original proportions, then the glory of God shows through His creation.

It’s unlikely these bestselling atheists will listen, but the pope may have had another audience in view. Many Catholic thinkers lately have proven wary of any attempts to show that (contra the phalanx of atheists) nature does proclaim the glory of God, and even more, that the latest science unambiguously declares His presence. By and large, these Catholic thinkers steer clear of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement and are satisfied with a declaration of peace in our time: science is one thing; theology another; each may go its own happy way and keep to its own borders; science has promised not to invade theology, if theology will only keep from meddling in science.

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The problem with this declaration of peace should already be evident. The above-mentioned atheist blitzkriegers are already in mid-invasion. If both science and reason speak against religious belief, they ask rhetorically, then why should any reasonable person respect such artificial borders and honor such puerile treaties?

How should we respond? The strategy of appeasement is always alluring, but rarely effective. Catholics do not have the luxury of silence. Hear the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which surely must have been in Benedict’s mind at Regensburg:

The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason, even if this knowledge is often obscured and disfigured by error (286).

Created in God’s image and called to know and love him, the person who seeks God discovers certain ways of coming to know him. These are also called proofs for the existence of God, not in the sense of proofs in the natural sciences, but rather in the sense of “converging and convincing arguments,” which allow us to attain certainty about the truth (31).
Contrary to Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and their like, Catholics — and Christians generally — should affirm that nature and reason both speak on behalf of God. But that leads directly to an apparent predicament. If we are able to reason from nature to the existence of God, surely it must be from a well-informed understanding of nature, one that takes account of the latest relevant scientific discoveries. To say that reason should not take into account the latest legitimate findings in science, or that the scientific understanding of nature has nothing to do with a philosophic argument from nature, leads to obvious absurdities. {mospagebreak}

The Balance

How, then, to sort out the proper relationship of science, reason, and faith? The Regensburg address provides the tools for answering this question. For the pope, we cannot achieve clarity without a thoroughgoing critique of our modern conception of reason.

As he insists, the atheists’ view of reason is too small. That is why it seems to exclude the existence of God. The problem, in the pope’s words, is “the modern self-limitation of reason,” a self-limitation that amounts to self-strangulation if not properly understood. As he was careful to note, this critique “has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.” Instead, he calls for a “broadening [of] our concept of reason” to “disclose its vast horizons.”

How did the constriction of reason occur? “This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology.” The synthesis consisted of a double-shrinking of reason to make it more powerful. Let’s look at each element of the synthesis in turn, beginning with the empirical.

According to Benedict, the empirical or Baconian element focused on “nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.” Francis Bacon hoped to cut through the philosophical wrangling and mystification of the natural philosophers of his day by shifting the definition of science from what nature is to what we want nature to do. Experiment was the way to “vex” the desired result from nature. Utility, therefore, pushed truth to the back burner.

The Cartesian element, Benedict explains, “presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.” It is Platonic insofar as the reinvigoration of Plato in the Renaissance carried within it the Pythagorean tendency to see reality as fundamentally mathematical, a tendency that Descartes crafted into a new mathematized account of nature.

Descartes thought he could overcome the skepticism of his time through the certainty of mathematics. To establish certainty, he imagined nature to be essentially mathematical. Thus, he argued, the most certain science of the human intellect — mathematics — exactly matched the very being of nature. What could be more air-tight against skepticism?

But if it was a victory, it was a Pyrrhic one. To triumph over skepticism in this way, we must jettison everything about reason and nature that is not amenable to mathematical analysis. Reason becomes more powerful, like a beam of light pulled to a point through a magnifying glass, but the gain in intensity leaves large areas of reality unilluminated. Whatever cannot be illuminated in mathematical terms is thrown overboard into the vast sea of subjectivity.

When the two aspects are put together, warns Benedict, a dangerous misunderstanding can all too easily result. Yoked to the Baconian element, this restricted mathematical approach has led to the conclusion that “only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific.” {mospagebreak}

The Problems with Scientism

What’s the harm? If we understood “scientific” to mean simply whatever knowledge can be gained using the mathematical-empirical method, then little harm would be done. We would clearly recognize that we were viewing reality according to a certain, well-defined lens. But too often the modern mind equates science thus defined with reason and knowledge themselves. The self-limitation is forgotten, leading to the peculiarly modern belief that what cannot be reduced to the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements is non-rational or even irrational. The mathematical-empirical approach too often degenerates from a way of thinking into a way of stopping thought, a Procrustean bed for chopping off and discarding whatever doesn’t fit within its narrow confines. Benedict makes clear that this way of thinking, often called “scientism,” by its very nature “excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question.”

For Benedict, a little philosophy clears the air of such misconceptions. As he notes, scientism lacks the resources to defend its own premises. Nor can it give an account of why the restricted view of science succeeds to the degree that it does. Using mathematics is one thing; but explaining why mathematics is such an effective scientific instrument is quite another. The constricted reason of scientism can do the first, but it cannot do the second.

That is a telling shortfall. Thinking on the nature of purely formal mathematical systems, on how and why they map onto reality, and on the nature of the mind itself revealed in such thinking — all of this undergirds the Platonic-Cartesian element of the modern scientific synthesis, giving it a solid metaphysical foundation. But since such intellectual work is not essentially mathematical (rather it is about mathematics), it fails the Platonic-Cartesian test of scientific rationality. Nor can we subject these philosophical reflections themselves to empirical analysis. Empirical analysis can verify their effectiveness but not explain them. The strange consequence: The explanation fails the empirical-Baconian test of scientific rationality.

Given this embarrassing turn of events, we are justified in taking another path as we reflect on the wonderful effectiveness of mathematics in the various sciences. The clarity and precision of higher mathematics, and its amazing effectiveness in mapping many of the regularities of the physical world, can stir in us the Platonic effect, one closer to Plato himself rather than the Platonism of modernity.

Plato thought the study of mathematics could awaken the reasonable human soul from its slumber in carnality, lead it upwards to a contemplation of the order and harmony of the cosmos, and draw it inward to a contemplation of the soul capable of knowing that order. This double reflection — a kind of union between the human soul and the order and harmony of the heavens — is possible because there is a profound correlation between reason (in Greek, logos) in the human soul and the logos of the heavens. Without this correlation, there could be no science.

This expansion of the radius of reason is, for Plato, the fundamental experience necessary to becoming philosophic (rather than remaining merely a sophist, whose reason is tightly bound to the earth and the vagaries of human affairs). This expansion of reason is also natural. Recalling Benedict’s words, it entails an exhilarating natural disclosure, a revelation of the vast horizons of human reason as it explores the profound reason, the logos, of nature. This expansion explains how science is even possible; it therefore explains why the restricted approach of scientism is powerful even if scientism itself cannot give an account of that power.{mospagebreak}

The Logos in Nature

But the expansion of reason reveals yet more, and what it reveals speaks for theism over atheism. Modern science depends on the intelligibility of nature. It depends, in Benedict’s words, on this “correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature,” a correspondence between mind and thing. That this correspondence is given in nature, and not humanly contrived, is what makes science a meaningful activity. If no such correspondence existed — if nature were mere random gibberish under its surface — then science of any kind would be entirely pointless, at best an impotent, entirely artificial projection of our own merely human logos upon an essentially meaningless natural canvas. But against this, science indisputably depends on the rational order, the logos, pre-existent in nature. And the logos in nature leads reasonably to consideration of the cause of this inherent intelligibility, the Logos, the intelligent cause of nature.

One cannot help but be reminded of the prologue of the Gospel of John, itself a recollection of the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning was the λόγος,” a logos that reveals itself to the human logos both in nature and history. Although Benedict brings this to mind, he also makes it clear that this is no license to collapse the divine into the human, the supernatural into the natural. Divine reason and human reason, Divine Logos and human logos, the pope reminds us, are not identical but analogous. As Benedict remarks, “The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which — as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated — unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.”

This real analogy of logos to Logos is the source of reason’s claim to know God through nature. The scientism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens cannot see God because, by its own self-limitation, it excludes God. But expanded natural reason can see the wisdom of God in creation in accordance with the likeness in the analogy. Beyond natural reason, revelation discloses truths that for the most part reside in the “unlikeness” of the depths of the Divine Logos.

Benedict’s approach is surely a fruitful one. It’s very much the approach we take in our book, A Meaningful World. The main shift in the approach from most earlier ID attempts (The Privileged Planet being a notable exception) is that, like Benedict, we focus on the inherent, deep intelligibility of nature manifested in the correspondence between our human logos and the Logos of nature. In particular, we focus on the correspondence between the works of human genius and the genius evident in creation.

Borrowing and adapting Thomas Aquinas’s framework for considering the elements of beauty, we argue that those artistic works regarded as the products of genius across a variety of cultures both East and West possess four qualities to a high degree: depth, harmony, elegance, and clarity (where clarity involves, as in its root sense, not simple transparency but radiance). We do not argue that this is the only illuminating framework for considering what is common to works of genius, only that these elements of genius are widely recognized. We then offer a wide array of evidence — from the use of mathematics in science, from the history of chemistry, from physics and biology — that this signature of genius is visible in the natural world and in the very activity of science itself. Contra Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, both the genius in nature and the genius of scientists proclaim the Genius of nature, the glory of God.

As Pope Benedict reminded us at Regensburg, focusing on the inherent intelligibility of nature not only allows for a more robust understanding of the natural world, it returns us to what made the birth of science possible, the conviction that the rational human mind could probe the rational order of a rational God. The genius of scientific discovery is possible because of the built-in intelligibility of nature, a recognition that leads us from the logos of human genius, through the logos in nature, to the Logos, the Genius, of nature.

Photo © Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters


  • Benjamin D. Wiker

    Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.

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