Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Question of Boundaries
Well, it's been a year since the paperback came out and two years since the hardcover. The reception from most magazine reviewers has been very good. And I can't complain about sales given the modest print run.

Still, there has been a particular criticism raised by two journals which I think deserves response.

The First Things 'briefly noted' review is the more recent example (December 2007 issue, online for subscribers only). It basically hints at the same complaint that Touchstone made in the close of their review of November 2006.

Here's Briefly Noted from First Things:
"Lemaitre, in the author's telling, subscribed to a radical division between scientific and religious truth that many thinkers today would view as naive."

Here's Touchstone. The review, it's worth noting by the way, is by Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, who is currently (whether he likes it or not I imagine) being held up by the Intelligent Design movement as a martyr because he was recently denied tenure.

"Anyone who has been accused of allowing his religion to cloud his scientific judgment will understand the pressure Lemaître was under. Nevertheless, he and Farrell seem overly zealous in denying any relationship between faith and science generally.

"Scripture is obviously not a twenty-first-century science textbook, but that simple point hardly answers every question at the boundary of faith and science. For instance, surely some scientific evidence could have theological implications. And what could be more theologically suggestive than evidence that the universe had a beginning? Even atheists like Fred Hoyle saw this point clearly. What is perplexing is why it eluded both Lemaître and his biographer."

I'm responding to both--not because I think their point isn't valid, but because I don't think it applies to Lemaître, that Lemaître was too guarded, too strict about a "radical" separation be supposedly built between his faith and his science.

And what could be more theologically suggestive than evidence that the universe had a beginning? Even atheists like Fred Hoyle saw this point clearly. What is perplexing is why it eluded both Lemaître and his biographer.

Well, it didn't if you read the book carefully. First off, recall that Fred Hoyle was dead wrong about the steady state theory, so it's hardly a mark in his favor or the reviewers to remind us that he had metaphysical reasons (his dislike of the Big Bang's implications) for his developing a failed theory in the first place. If anything, Hoyle proves my point: don't mix your science with faith (whether it's good faith or bad). By the way, this might be good advice for Michael Behe who has essentially done more to discredit natural theology with his theory of irreducible complexity than any poorly trained theologian who'd never seen a biology book in his life might have.

Secondly, Lemaître never denied that science can have theological implications--and neither do I. But when he took issue with the Pope in the passage Touchstone's review cited, it's worth recalling what the Pope actually said at the Papal Audience in 1951:

"What was the nature and condition of the first matter of the universe? The answers given differ considerably from one another according to the theories on which they are based. Yet there is a certain amount of agreement. It is agreed that the density, pressure and temperature of primitive matter must each have touched prodigious values.

"Clearly and critically, as when it [the enlightened mind] examines facts and passes judgment on them, it perceives the work of creative omnipotence and recognizes that its power, set in motion by the mighty Fiat of the Creating Spirit billions of years ago, called into existence with gesture of generous love and spread over the universe matter bursting with energy. Indeed, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the Fiat Lux, when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies." [emphasis mine]

I think this comes across pretty obviously as more than simply presenting the theological implications of what was at the time a very tentative theory (this was over ten years before the cosmic background radiation was discovered and Hoyle's theory was getting more support from scientists in the UK). The Pope was straightforwardly identifying the Big bang with the "instant of the Fiat Lux". I don't think Lemaître was out of line to point out this was going too far.

It's one thing to keep a wall of separation between your science and faith. I don't think Lemaître did that. He was simply and always careful to distinguish the boundaries between the two, and he thought the Pope was assuming too much in his enthusiasm for the Big Bang. (I might recommend that more enthusiasts of Intelligent Design rethink the theological implications of their own support for it. See, for example, the excellent Edward T. Oakes deconstructing the usual suspects from the Discovery Institute on this point. And Scott Carson.)

Pius XII by the way, was no wallflower. I think he certainly would have stood up for himself if he thought he was right; but he seems to have agreed with Lemaître, as he did not rebuke him on the score when Lemaître later discussed the situation, or continue insisting the Big Bang was "the instant of the Fiat Lux", since he was well aware, as any theologian could have reminded him, God's word preceded all in ontological, not just temporal terms, and therefore could not be subject to or defined by a temporal instant (or any other scientifically measurable quantity) at all.

Lemaître was a better Thomist, I think, than Pius in this case.

Recall that in the great dispute about the eternity of the world in St. Thomas' time, he was careful to point out that 1. philosophically it could not be demonstrated that the world had a temporal beginning, and further, that even if it could be shown the universe was temporally eternal, it in no way changed its radical existential dependence on God. "Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science."˜St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 46, Article 2

Lemaître was simply making the same point when he said this:
"As far as I can see, such a theory [Big bang] remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being. He may keep, for the bottom of space-time, the same attitude of mind he has been able to adopt for events occurring in non-singular places in space-time. For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God, as were Laplace's chiquenaude or Jean's finger. It is consonant with the wording of Isaias speaking of the "Hidden God", hidden even in the beginning of creation....Science has not to surrender in face of the Universe and when Pascal tries to infer the existence of God from the supposed infinitude of Nature, we may think that he is looking in the wrong direction."

This last sentence bears thinking on.

According to Paul Dirac, he and Lemaître had a conversation once about God and the universe. Dirac was an atheist: "When I was talking with Lemaître about this subject and feeling stimulated by the grandeur of the picture that he has given us, I told him that I thought cosmology was the branch of science that lies closest to religion. However Lemaître did not agree with me. After thinking it over he suggested psychology as lying closest to religion."

It may seem strange that one of the 20th century's greatest physicists saw God more in the actions of his fellow men...and yet that's probably what most ordinary Christians do in our daily lives when we see examples of holiness, heroic courage, kindness, mercy, and self-sacrifice.

If it seems pedantic to point this out, profuse apologies. But I stand my ground in disagreeing with the reviewers at First Things and Touchstone that Lemaître was being too careful about the distinctions all Christians should keep in their minds between science and faith.