A Matter of Faith?
Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2009 May 20
It has become the default assumption among the smart set that there are two non-overlapping spheres of human understanding. One sphere is Nature, where star fish, starlets, and stars are reducible to elemental forms of matter and energy. Here, direct observation and the powers of reason and science make knowledge certain.
The other sphere is Supernature, populated by soul, spirits, God, and everything else originating from human imaginings, needs and yearnings. Beyond the reach of empirical examination, knowledge here is tenuous and uncertain.
The former is the realm of Facts, the latter the realm of Faith, and betwixt them, there is no connecting thoroughfare. Such was not always the case.
The early Greeks believed in a primal source of harmony that made the universe, in its diversity, a coherent whole. (The word “universe” contains the idea of “in the many, one.”) Accepting a common rational structure for the mind and the universe, they supposed that nature and knowledge were unified. Even “things unseen” were thought to be knowable through the powers of unaided reason.
The presumption of unity held sway until “hard” empiricism jettisoned the questions of ultimate causes to the Empyrean.
FROM UNIFICATION TO BIFURCATION
Reliance on reason alone led the Greeks to many false conclusions about the universe—aether, geocentrism, and spontaneous generation, to name a few. Corrections to those errors were held back for well over a millennium until the scientific method was introduced, adding experimentation to rational analysis.
The new, empirically based approach enabled the discovery of laws and mathematical relationships that described the workings of the universe with breathtaking accuracy. And with that came a new theory of knowledge.
Inspired by the smashing success of the scientific revolution, John Locke and George Berkeley concluded that the only reliable source of knowledge was empirical. Unlike the ancient and medieval rationalists who believed that the cognitive powers of the mind were sufficient for discovering the true nature of things, Locke and Berkeley insisted that knowledge stems from sensory experience. They insisted that the mind is a blank slate with no in-built organizing architecture. It is our senses that inform our mind, not the other way around. With each new game-changing discovery of science, rationalism fell deeper into the shadow of empiricism, until fully eclipsed by the “hard” empiricism of David Hume.
Undergirding the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley was the presumption that true knowledge was possible, even for things not directly accessible by sense perception, like physical laws, and abstract mathematical concepts like infinity. But David Hume said, “No!”
According to Hume, we have no access to physical laws; they are not implanted in us from birth, or writ large in the sky for all to read. All we have is a continuing stream of experiences from which we construct associations and relationships that have no necessary bearing on what is really real. We may have experienced a sunrise every morning, but that does not guarantee the sun will rise tomorrow. Without access to the true nature of things, we are left to form working assumptions to help us order our lives. Hume’s “hard” empiricism jolted Immanuel Kant out of his dogmatic slumbers.
To rescue rationalism from the onslaught of Hume, Kant synthesized it with empiricism by proposing that the mind comes endowed with faculties that give meaning to our experiences. This synthesis, Kant submitted, makes possible the identification of laws, even the moral law. But Kant’s deliverance of reason did not include the presumption of unity upheld by the early rationalists.
In the Kant schema, reality was split asunder into the phenomenal world and noumenal world. In the phenomenal were the things of the sensible universe, Nature; in the noumenal were the ultimate causes (the logos, the good, God) and the true nature of things (ideas, forms, spirit). For Kant, certain knowledge was only possible in the phenomenal.
In time, all of Supernature and the moral law (Kant would have been pained to learn) were pushed to the sphere of faith. The resultant fact-faith split had a tremendous influence on the gatekeepers of science. Caught up in the anti-clericism of the times, they sought to liberate science from the fetters of faith by reducing its scope to “natural” explanations. The result was scientific materialism.
But as we will see, materialistic science is far from faith-free.
FAITH ALL THE WAY DOWN
The materialist operates on the belief that “nature is all there is.” The word “belief” signifies something that is not scientifically proven. In fact, this founding proposition is not scientifically proven nor provable because, given that only natural explanations are allowed, materialistic science depends on the very premises it is trying to demonstrate. Like all worldviews, scientific materialism is founded on a faith statement. But faith is not limited to its groundwork; it comprises its superstructure as well.
Consider one of the most familiar, and basic, features of nature: gravity. Like angels, heaven, and God, we can’t see, smell, taste, or touch gravity. Sure, we feel a pull toward earth, but we also “feel” a pull toward heaven. Even the most successful theories of gravity are not explanations, but descriptions that are wildly different.
In one pitch, gravity is an invisible force, associated with matter, mediated by who knows what—some say gravitons, which, by the way, have never been isolated, observed, or measured, but, nonetheless are a convenient placeholder for our ignorance. And talk about matter—no one knows why gravity is fond of it and not other things, like photons.
In another depiction, gravity is not a force but, rather, the topography spacetime shaped by the presence of matter. As one physicist puts it, “Matter tells space how to bend and space tells matter where to go.” Again, why does matter, and nothing else, have this effect? No one knows. More fundamentally, which came first, matter or space? If space, did it have no shape? If matter, did it occupy no space? To such tail-chasing, it seems, there is never an end.
That is not to take anything away from the formulations of these theories. Indeed, they have led to many space-age advancements. Yet the gravitational phenomena we observe, and the laws and equations that describe them, are independent of their explanation or ultimate cause. Whether the orbit of the earth is the result of an invisible force, a spacetime warp, or the guiding hand of Him in whom “all things hold together,” our observations and mathematical descriptions are unaffected. The explanation we accept is an exercise of faith, not a demonstration of fact. The same goes for the common-day forces of magnetism and electricity.
When we drill down to subatomic dimensions, we enter a world of bare faith. Quarks, electrons, and muons, and the nuclear forces that control them, are foreign to anything we know from everyday experience. And the infinitesimal scales involved make direct examination impossible. Everything we “know” comes from particle accelerator—that is, “atom-smashing”—experiments.
As a working approximation, imagine riddling a steel box with an AK-47, then trying to reconstruct the mystery object inside by piecing together the resulting shrapnel. Because we do not know how the strafing affected the object in its undisturbed state, our reconstruction is based on inference. The same goes for our depictions of the atomic world, with a little fancy thrown in the mix.
For example, there is a whole category of stuff in the quantum realm labeled “virtual.” It includes subnuclear-sized particles and photons that have never been detected and, indeed, do not exist except as ethereal abstractions in the minds of physicists to make sense of phenomena that make no sense without them.
Even the quantum field, which is credited with preventing the annihilation of matter by keeping the negatively charged electron cloud from combining with the positively charged nucleus, is nothing more than a rarefied label for something (the stability of matter) that is, materialistically speaking, inexplicable.
From the cosmic scale of gravity down to the micro scale of the atom, faith undergirds scientific knowledge—faith in materialism. Nowhere is that more candidly expressed than in the words of evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises . . . because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.”
For those whose faith will not be shaken by patent absurdities, astrophysicist Robert Jastrow warns that “the story ends like a bad dream.” After their final ascent on the mountain of discovery, they peer over the horizon to see a group of theologians who have been awaiting their arrival for a long, long time.
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