Faith Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge by C. Baglow

I purchased a textbook from one of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life online courses. It seems to be a wonderful textual repository for those interested in faith and science. One strength of the work for me is how it dialogues with scripture. Its goal is not to simply parade all the abuses of science we find in conservative and evangelical thinking, but instead it attempts to provide a fresh and positive message where science and faith are analyzed together. I wanted to use this to maybe stimulate some discussions and receive informed commentary and pushback on what the authors says at times. Plus I have questions. The work is a goldmine for quotes. Two classics from chapter 1:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks : “Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion brings things together to see what they mean.’

CS. Lewis: “ I believe in Christianity as believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

The Preface underscores the importance of the issue of science and faith John Paul II Is quoted: “Christians will inevitably assimilate the prevailing ideas about the world, and today these are deeply shaped by science. The only question is whether they will do this critically or unreflectively, with depth and nuance or with a shallowness that debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.”

Baglow writes: In our scientifically literate culture, ignoring science, or offering only shallow reflections upon it, leads to impoverishment of evangelization and catechesis and to the scorn of the world that needs the Gospel. With this in mind, it is no wonder that in a culture where science is the cutting edge of human knowledge, young people who do not hear the truth of the Catholic faith in relation to it all too often question their religious instruction.”

This resonates well with me. I honestly get embarrassed and uncomfortable (and annoyed) in a lot of places when I see arrogant apologists bashing evolution with such certitude. I really think it’s the certitude I see that some people have that does it. I think the same thing bothers me when people just “brazenly” dismiss critical scholars. I think it just demonstrates the truth in the notion that the more you learn the more you come to realize the less you know. But I myself am not immune to fuzzy thinking or intellectual pride. I am guilty of both and I had to (and still) learn hard lessons myself and change my views on a number of issues while letting go of beliefs I have been conditioned and polarized not to. At any rate, I 100% feel we should do open and honest research both scientifically and historically. Not doing so “debases the Gospel and leaves us ashamed before history.” This is one of the strengths of the Catholic intellectual tradition I have been exposed to. They can do both and still remain thoroughly Christian.

Chapter 1: Opens with an absolutely wonderful quote from John Paul II (preface to Fides et Ratio):“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Baglow rightly calls this a “beautiful image of the human spirit soaring in flight upon two winds.

Reading this reminded me of Biologos: God’s Word. God’s World. We have two books or two spheres of human knowledge. Revelation (via scripture and the Church) and nature. As the Psalmist said, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” For me, teaching and learning about the inner workings and wonder of the universe through science is celebrating God’s creation. It is learning about the work of His hands created through His Son.

Later in the chapter the “order of the universe” (think uniformitarianism, patterns, regularity) is related to the second member of the Trinity. First Einstein is quoted: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility . . . .The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Baglow says:

“The second Person of the Trinity, the Son, is given a special name in Scripture—he is called the Logos, a Greek word which literally means “Mind” or “Reason.” From this we see that the Christian faith begins with placing faith in the Reason of God—no wonder St. John Paul II calls upon believers to use their minds! Of the Divine Logos we are told that “all things were made through him,” (Jn 1:3) and “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). Like the scientific perspective then, the perspective of faith turned towards the universe begins with a vision of orderliness. Faith reveals that from all eternity the Son is God’s perfect wisdom, and so the universe is lawful, full of patterns that are intelligible. Scientists like Murray Gell-Mann marvel at the effectiveness of mathematics for describing the universe; but why should mathematical order be the foundational characteristic of reality? The Christian might respond, “because God is Truth, and so the universe reflects his wisdom”; in the words of Psalm 104: “Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all . . . “(v. 24)

Baglow also writes: “Faith, then, reflects upon the orderliness of the universe just as science does. The more science understands the universe and its laws, the more the certainty of faith in the Son-Logos as the very source of reality is reconfirmed.”

The author goes on to remark a little on the openness of reality and attempts to parallel that to the third member of the Trinity: “the Holy Spirit, the divine Person who is “Gift Love, is always associated with what is new and surprising in God’s work in history.” I have questions on this section on openness and “a universe of emergence.” To keep this shorter (yeah right), the gist is the universe is not the same as the sum total of its parts – a discussion that reminded me of Polkinghorne’s discussion on top-down vs bottom-up causality in an older work- - but he says some things I am not sure how to fully process:

“The universe is full of examples of order that are not fully explained by prior events, and full of systems that are not reducible to the sum of their parts. For example, the water molecule profoundly affects the properties of the hydrogen and oxygen of which is consists of—water has physical properties that are entirely unlike the physical properties of hydrogen gas and diatomic gas. This kind of newness is especially true of living organisms, which exhibit a control over their individual parts , ordering those parts in new ways not seen in the nonliving universe. When new entities occur that cannot be explained simply as the sum of their parts, and that must be understood by beginning with the whole and working down to the parts, scientists call this phenomenon emergence. Water is emergent from hydrogen and oxygen: life is emergent from nonliving chemicals , and so on.”

I get the water has vastly different physical properties from hydrogen and oxygen but isn’t the underlying electron chemistry going to explain the physical properties of these diatomic gases and water all the same? Can’t we just talk about electronegativity, water being a polar molecule and so on? Diatomic gases are non-polar covalent whereas a bent polar molecule with strong hydrogen bonds has the properties underlying chemistry says it should does it not? I mean, intermolecular forces are going to dictate things like water’s phase at various temperatures, its boiling point and so on. I doubt the author is intending to indicate otherwise. Is he going into a deeper scientific level? Or is the author just saying a chair might be made of wood and screws but its more than just wood and screws? Or just that water has different properties from its individual parts? Is it that simple?

I also understand that there is a chance and randomness in reality shown in many places and when used to describe emergent realities the author saysthis means they “are not the strict outcome of rigid uniform processes. They are surprising and not able to be predicted simply by knowing the laws of the universe and the initial condition of a physical system.” The universe is said to be pervaded by an openness and is full of “novel possibilities that become realities through surprising events.” As one example, the lumpy regions randomly distributed throughout the universe 380,000 years after the big bang were able to bring new levels of order to the cosmos thanks to gravity.

Baglow writes, “Emergent systems, arising from things much simpler and displaying new levels of complexity, distinguish our universe as one that is not closed and clocklike, but open and surprising.” Is this going to far or essentially, correct? Baglow continues: “In Short, the universe is a balance of order and openness, law and flexibility, symmetry and surprises. A fundamental order exists, but that order is flexible in ways that are open to the emergence of new levels or order that are not simply reducible to simpler levels.”

In chapter one Baglow also draws a comparison to the wave particle duality of light to Christian belief in certain paradoxes. He does this to dispel ideas that Christian belief in paradoxes is a valid reason to reject the faith on intellectual grounds. Jefferson is used as an example. “Light cannot be fully imagined. It presents us with a natural paradox. But this is because the nature of light is richer than our minds can handle. The same is true of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and many other articles of faith.” He suggests there are other examples in science aside from light behaving as a wave (double slit) and a particle (photoelectric effect). What would these include? Maybe quantum entanglement? Are these scientific paradoxes just due to a lack of information and currently uncompleted physics or are they true paradoxes that are beyond our cognitive abilities? Do they compare?

I thought the first chapter was an excellent read. I am genuinely looking forward to the rest of the book. In some ways I feel like this is the book I have been seeking for a while now.


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That’s what I thought!

My favorite of your opening quotes.

I agree entirely with that ^ and also with:

Paradox is actually informative telling us for one thing of the limitations and faultiness of simplistic reasoning. If the universe is so surprisingly open and creative our reasoned conclusions need to retain a corresponding tentativeness.

Mine too.

The more we learn from science the more we are humbled.

I went to wiki on emergence:

In physics, emergence is used to describe a property, law, or phenomenon which occurs at macroscopic scales (in space or time) but not at microscopic scales, despite the fact that a macroscopic system can be viewed as a very large ensemble of microscopic systems.

The footnotes for this article link to an article about basic ideas in condensed matter physics.

According to Laughlin,[9] for many particle systems, nothing can be calculated exactly from the microscopic equations, and macroscopic systems are characterised by broken symmetry: the symmetry present in the microscopic equations is not present in the macroscopic system, due to phase transitions. As a result, these macroscopic systems are described in their own terminology, and have properties that do not depend on many microscopic details.

Theoretical physicist PW Anderson states it this way:
The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. The constructionist hypothesis breaks down when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale and complexity. At each level of complexity entirely new properties appear. Psychology is not applied biology, nor is biology applied chemistry. We can now see that the whole becomes not merely more, but very different from the sum of its parts.

I mustnadmit I kind of thought "the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. I never really thought about it that much though.

Gu et al. concluded that: “Although macroscopic concepts are essential for understanding our world, much of fundamental physics has been devoted to the search for a ‘theory of everything’, a set of equations that perfectly describe the behavior of all fundamental particles. The view that this is the goal of science rests in part on the rationale that such a theory would allow us to derive the behavior of all macroscopic concepts, at least in principle. The evidence we have presented suggests that this view may be overly optimistic. A ‘theory of everything’ is one of many components necessary for complete understanding of the universe, but is not necessarily the only one. The development of macroscopic laws from first principles may involve more than just systematic logic, and could require conjectures suggested by experiments, simulations or insight.”

It is interesting. I am curious how mainstream this sort of thinking is. A paper I found in a reddit discussion below:

There’s also the fact that teaching by paradox was a thing. A rabbi would give two lessons, generally not at the same time, that posed a contradiction and the disciple was to figure out how to resolve it.


I think this depends on what is meant by “reconstruct the universe”: if it means to start from a Big Bang and get this same universe, then that’s definitely not possible, but if it means to start from a Big Bang and get a universe like ours but not identical then I think that works.

From that paper:

In the familiar interpretations of quantum mechanics according to which it is consciousness itself that is responsible for wave-function collapse, the emergent quality of consciousness is not epiphenomenal but plays a crucial causal role.

I’m not sure I see the distinction between epiphenomenal and “crucial causal role”. Nevertheless, I agree with this:

My own view is that, relative to the physical domain, there is just one sort of strongly
emergent quality, namely, consciousness. I do not know whether there is any strong
downward causation, but it seems to me that if there is any strong downward causation,
quantum mechanics is the most likely locus for it.

Interesting read.

I thought so too. Some of it goes above my head though.

Chapter two was run of the mill. It seems to have tried to outline why there is a conflict between science and religion when historically this is not at all how things were. Lawrence Principe wrote: “The idea that scientific and religious camps have historically been separate and antagonistic is rejected by all modern historians of science.” Before the 19th century science and philosophy were more like synonyms. The chapter also suggested Christianity influenced the development of science.

Baglow writes: "But of all the world’s cultures and civilizations, only the Christian culture of Western Europe made the breakthrough to a total, lasting and far-reaching scientific approach. It was from there that modern science spread to the rest of the world. This is well documented in recent books such as Edward Grant’s God and Reason in the Middle Ages . . . . " Baglow also writes: “The world was the product of a Mind, and so could be understood by minds. God, according to scripture, had given laws to the universe “which cannot be passed” (Ps 148:6). Since other civilizations lacked a strong notion of a personal, perfectly good, wise and creative God, they also liked a firm religious and cultural stimulus in their search for natural principles and las oil the universe.”

I wonder if this is controversial?

The most interesting part of chapter 2 to me was it did not really focus at all on the Scopes Monkey trial which is different from some other books I read. Is this event given too much importance? Instead it looked at the writings of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White and pointed how the climate shifted.

It also pointed out the last three popes have all commented against literal creationism in regards to Genesis 1 which is a positive sign for the Catholic Church:

St John Paul II says Genesis 1 is not a scientific treatise and teaches theological truths: “Any other teaching about the origin and makes-up od the universe is aliens to the intentions of the Bible, which oe not wish to teach how the heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.” Pope Benedict xvi said the creation account “is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being.” Pope Francis: "When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. The big bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

Some interesting quotes from chapter 2:

Baglow: “Materialism, reductionism, and scientism are belief systems, convictions about reality. They must be clearly distinguished from science as such. Science, which examines the elements of the visible world, is not the same thing as materialism, which holds that the elements of the visible world are the only things that really exist. Nor is it the same thing as reductionism, which says that all things are reducible to their physical, visible parts. Finally, the belief that only science can reveal truth about reality (cientisim) is not a requirement for the study of science, just as the study of paintings does not require other forms of art are also valuable.”

It seems this is a large part of the problem to me. As post-enlightenment thinkers we tend to confuse science with some of these belief systems. I know better and I am guilty of this at times.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini: “To know man better from the scientific point of view is not automatically the same as knowing more about the value and meaning of existence.”

Pope Benedict XVi: We must again learn to understand that the great ethical insights of mankind are just as rational and just as true as – indeed more true than–the experimental knowledge of the realm. of the natural science and technology. They are more true, because they . . . have a more decisive significant for the humanity of man."

That last quote was quite the interesting statement. I must admit I like it. Science is wonderful but should not be given priority over modes of knowledge that speak to purpose, meaning, value and ethics. After all, these are probably the most important.


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That sounds awfully familiar, enough so I’m sure I’ve read it before.
Now I get to wonder if it was quoted or arose independently or . . . .

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