Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Scientism and God's Existence," Fr. Robert Barron

Last Saturday I went to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to hear Robert Spitzer, S.J., talk about his book, New Proofs for the Existence of God, which I've read a couple of times, excluding the one incomprehensible (by me) chapter written in the language of math.  It has long seemed to me that very good arguments could be made for God's existence--good enough to convince a reasonable person, and that Spitzer makes some of the most interesting ones, which hinge on time. Spitzer argues that time cannot be taken infinitely backwards according to any cosmological theory we've got, including multiple universes or string theory. If you agree that the universe / multiverse had a beginning, and also agree with the proposition that things which have beginnings must have causes, it suggests a beginning cause that had no beginning itself.

Spitzer also argued that physicists like Stephen Hawkings who posit the beginning of the universe never start from nothing--they always got some beginning state that is "something." I've read the last couple books that try to make the argument of a universe from "nothing," including Hawkings, and I think Spitzer is right. It still leaves open the question, where did that initial something--even if it's just a fluctuating gravitational state--come from?

Thomas Aquinas approaches the proof from contingency in two different ways. In the one that Spitzer focuses on, the line of causation is through time. But another way of looking at it has nothing to do with time, but rather with levels of reality. If you start with a cat, for instance, and next level might be organs, and then cells, and then molecules; protons, neutrons, elections; subatomic particles, to the very end. Finally, it seems, something is holding it all up, some causeless cause--otherwise, it's tortoises all the way down.

At any rate, leaving aside whether "proofs" for the existence of God are utterly convincing, I see no conflict between physical science and metaphysics or religion, as Fr. Robert Barron explains in the video below. That's good enough for me. I don't expect any human being to be able to explain with geometric precision the origin, meaning, or destiny of human life, whether they are Aquinas or Dawkins.

(Scientism and God's Existence)


  1. Don't get me wrong, I like that folks like Frs. Barron and Spitzer understand the historically and intellectually privileged role of philosophy in discussing higher-order problems, but it does bother me that they don't appear to have taken seriously any of the questions of philosophy after Kant. [As someone whose primary area of work starts in the late 19th century, it is kind of hard to listen to someone talk about "scientistic arrogance" while touting folk-philosophy as though it were somehow current or intellectually interesting to the contemporary community.]

    Here's what I mean: Spitzer's argument, as you characterize it, seems to be that a standard account of time as presented by Aquinas requires a definite point of generation, as all events constituted in a series of temporal events are contingent. Of course, this conceptual claim about the nature of time as linear and homogeneous [whether it is progressive or static, another argument altogether] is precisely the philosophical challenge posed by the philosophically literate professors to Hawking and Krauss; Lorentz and Einstein explicitly challenge the folk concept of time, which is both a scientific point [because it can be assessed in empirical terms] and a philosophical point [because it addresses necessary features of a concept].

    People like Boltzmann, and later Heisenberg and Born, make similar challenges regarding the concepts of causation that problematize Newtonian physics.

    What's my point? There are several, but the one antagonistic to this post is that there is a phenomenal level of hypocrisy and illiteracy in the accusations made by Catholics that scientists are doing bad philosophy. We live after the discourses on presentism by Reichenbach or the concept of contingency by Hempel or the concept of infinities by Hilbert is just laziness, and that's just one school of thinkers in Germany. Reheating fetid folk-concepts and presenting them as though the scientists ought to care is not the sort of thing we ought to be advancing as intellectuals.

    1. You'll have to read Spitzer yourself to get an informed opinion--I didn't present a rigorous abstract. Neither Spitzer nor Barron are ignorant of philosophy from Kant to the present and Spitzer is certainly not ignorant of Einstein's physics.

      I have no reason to think that they don't believe their own arguments, so even if the arguments they present are wrong (which Spitzer admitted as entirely possible), I don't see how they can be accused of "a phenomenal level of hypocrisy," or for that matter, hypocrisy at all. Frankly, I don't see how you can be confident in making such a damning accusation. Do you have some sort of privileged access to their hearts so that you know they are wickedly presenting arguments they don't believe in?

      Also, I didn't hear Sptizer or Barron make the sweeping statement that "scientists are doing bad philosophy." I heard Barron say that when scientists writing popular books cross the boundary line between science and metaphysics, they make non-scientific claims presented as science, i. e., "scientististic" claims.

    2. The version of the argument from contingency that Barron presents explicitly, and that it seems like Spitzer is presenting from your description [which I'd find entirely unsurprising], is an argument that uses anachronistic concepts of causality and temporality. My assertion wasn't that they don't believe their own argument, but rather that they don't take seriously the contemporary tradition of philosophy. If they did, they wouldn't be presenting an argument which asserted sufficient causation as Aristotle's simple "formal and efficient cause" model as though it is taken seriously in the contemporary academy.

      You respond: "I heard Barron say that when scientists writing popular books cross the boundary line between science and metaphysics, they make non-scientific claims presented as science, i. e., "scientististic" claims."

      This is exactly what I'm getting out about misunderstanding or ignoring the recent history. Some of the claims made by Hawking about uniformity of time and the lack of formal causes are claims which are not solely philosophical. Over the last century-and-a-half, those claims and views have been enormously influenced not just by the study of mathematics [and a prioristic study generally] but by studies in physics and other scientific fields. The idea that science ought not to impinge on claims made by philosophy [this being part of Gould's popular "NOMA" view] is just not historically grounded. The examples I presented [Lorentz, Einstein, Boltzmann etc.] are just a limited case study in times where scientists make claims that we previously considered claims about metaphysics, challenging the assumptions of another field, often incredibly successfully.

  2. So,let me get this straight.

    Because Spitzer and Barron think a philosophical tradition still in continuity with Aristotle and Aquinas has validity (include Bernard Lonergan in this group), this means they are, to use your phrase, guilty of "a phenomenal level of hypocrisy"?

    And on the basis of a ten-minute video and my quick summary you are assuming they are "illiterate" when it comes to contemporary philosophy and guilty of "reheating fetid folk-concepts"?

  3. With regard to the first question, perhaps we need some clarification. They're guilty of a phenomenal level of hypocrisy because they're accusing scientists [some in particular, not generally, since you correctly drew the distinction, and I didn't] of not being appropriately respectful of extant philosophical discourse while themselves disrespecting extant philosophical discourse. It is hypocritical to say that scientists ought to give deference to a set of philosophical concepts that they deem important while they themselves neglect the philosophical concepts operating in the scientific community.

    The issue is not that they think that a contiguous philosophical tradition still has validity; the issue is that they are presenting a tradition without qualification, particularly in regards to the last two centuries of philosophical thought. Lonergan explicitly acknowledged these qualifications and actively pushed against these folk concepts in favor of serious phenomenology. [Lonergan was my introduction to Catholic philosophy, and I'm fond of him, so there may be some bias there.]

    You're right that my language was strong in criticizing them, perhaps it was unfair or excessively polemical, but we're both guilty of that from time to time.

  4. I'm sure you're right in your last paragraph. Mea culpa.

    You might find Spitzer to be a lot more balanced than you think, though. Barron, who is operating as a popular evangelist in those short videos would lose his audience if he got into the philosophical tall grass but I've heard and read him, when he's had more leisure to develop an argument, and he does pretty well, I think. At any rate, your contributions to this entry are valuable for directing my attention, and anyone else's who might be reading it, to look harder at contemporary connections between science and metaphysics. So thanks.

  5. The formal cause and final causes are most certainly overlooked in science. But science necessarily ends at the boundary of observational evidence. Science will never understand God. Different laws apply at the supernatural level: obedience, faith, love, hope, humility. Jesus demonstrates how these laws apply in his miracles: