Monday, June 19, 2017

Can a scientist believe in miracles, redux.
Is belief in evolution and cosmology heretical?

People Looking at the Sun During Fatima Apparition
Wikimedia Commons.
“Miracles always relate to the faith. That is why a belief in miracles is not a vacation from reason, a little holiday from the tedious demands of rational responsibility. Not only is it reasonable to believe that miracles can and do happen, it is unreasonable to think they cannot and do not occur.”― Ralph M. McInerny, Miracles—a Catholic View


Almost a year ago I published a post, "Can a scientist believe in miracles?" 
This received a bit of attention--interviews on a Catholic Radio Station and a Roman newspaper, and a part in a documentary (in progress) on Catholic scientists.   In this post I want to examine whether I must, as a faithful Catholic, and as a scientist  who holds that miracles are possible, believe that the Creation account given in Genesis is literally true, without modification, and thereby exclude what science tells us about common descent and cosmology.   In a way, it's the other side of the coin:  can a faithful Catholic believe in science?


All this arose because one of my recent posts, reposted on Matt Brigg's blog, "God's Periodic Table...and Evolution, has drawn flak from those who believe that Genesis 1-3 should be taken literally;   which is to say, effectively, that evolution and cosmology are heretical poppycock.   One of these critics has used an Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on marriage, Arcanum Divinae, to support this position:
“Though revilers of the Christian faith refuse to acknowledge the never-interrupted doctrine of the Church on this subject …. We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep.”--Leo XIII, Arcanum Divinae"
"Mark", who quoted this, added this comment: 
"One submits to the authority of the Chair of Peter or one does not. Pope Leo XIII indicates that the above miracle is to be held by all and those that dissent from it are “revilers of the faith”. He enjoyed infallibility or he didn’t.  Vatican I and her teaching on infallibility is accepted or it is not."--"Mark", 
Further, Mark quoted  from the 1909 Biblical Commission instituted by Pope St. Pius X to argue that science cannot be used to exclude the literal historical sense of Genesis:
“I: Do the various exegetical systems excogitated and defended under the guise of science to exclude the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis rest on a solid foundation?
Answer: In the negative. ”
 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission on Genesis
Must these statements be believed by a faithful Catholic, as for example, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary must be believed,  or do they have a lesser status, such  that one must  examine them, seek advice,  and determine by conscience whether one can hold them to be true.?*   

My first impulse is to say while these documents might constitute part of the Magisterium, statements and actions from Popes later on--Piux XII (Humanae Vitae), St. John Paul II (see below)--are not in accord with such a strict, literal reading of Genesis.    For example, Pope St. John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences said
 Dans son encyclique « Humani Generis » (1950), mon prédécesseur Pie XII avait déjà affirmé qu'il n'y avait pas opposition entre l'évolution et la doctrine de la foi sur l'homme et sur sa vocation, à condition de ne pas perdre de vue quelques points fermes.   Pope St. John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1996
"My predecessor, Pius XII, has already affirmed in his Encyclical, "Humani Generis" (1950) that there is not opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the fall of man and his vocation provided that certain fixed points are kept in mind."  my translation.
Further, Pope St.  John Paul II  convened conferences on Evolutionary Biology, Quantum Cosmology, and Physics, Philosophy and Theology, all dealing with Divine Intervention and the intersection between faith and science.    Would he have done so had he believed, as evidently prescribed by Arcanum Divinae and the 1909 Biblical Commission, that Genesis 1-3 was literally true and not to be interpreted in terms of science?

Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences noted
"My predecessors Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II noted that there is no opposition between faith’s understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences." 
"Creation should be thought of, not according to the model of the craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner that thought is creative. And at the same time it becomes evident that being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation…"— Benedict XVI, in Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo
Writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, "In the Beginning", a compilation of homilies and addresses on the Old Testament as a forerunner to the New, he said
“It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such.   It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it.  [emphasis added] One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time -“
This echoes what the priests taught in my Scripture class (year long) 14 years ago for the Ecclesial Lay Ministry training program of our diocese.   And I would agree with critics that these homilies and messages to Congresses do not have the force of "ex Cathedra" pronouncements or Encylicals.   Nevertheless, it is clear they indicate what recent popes have thought.


When I brought these arguments up, one commentator asked whether I believed that Catholic teaching is dictated by science.    The answer is resoundingly NO!
In everything I've written on these blogs, I have stressed the limited domain of science.

If I were to answer "yes", I would have to assume that science explains everything, that "Naturalism" (or materialism or scientism) is the only explanation  for all things and processes;  in other words,  I would accept that the so called laws of nature are just that, prescriptive, rather than descriptive attempts to give a mathematical picture of some aspects of our world.    I would have to assume there is no "veiled reality" in quantum mechanics, and that a physicist who told me "I understand quantum mechanics" is neither a liar nor a fool.

Indeed, it is more the case that my Catholic faith dictates what science I think is valid.   I believe that man is endowed by the Holy Spirit with a soul.  Accordingly, I do not believe that it will be possible to create true "artificial intelligence", that is to say a robot or android such as Star Trek's Data with conscience and feeling.  As I have written in one post, "Do Neanderthals have a soul?",  I believe that the Creation of man can be explained by the first implantation of a soul into Homo Sapiens (or Homo ???). 

As I have written before, I believe in miracles, because I believe that God, as C.S. Lewis proposed,  can feed new events into nature to create what seems to us to be a miracle.  And since the "Laws of Nature" were made by God, certainly He can override them if He so chooses.  These "Laws of Nature", to repeat, are descriptive not prescriptive.  They are our attempt to understand and make sense of God's wonderful creation.   God can't make 2 + 2 = 5, but he can curve space  so that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees.  

Even though I believe in miracles, I do not think this entails that I must believe that Genesis or all other parts of the Old Testament are literally true, as some fundamentalist Christians would have it.   With Cardinal Ratzinger, I believe that the Old Testament is a religious book, not a science textbook.    Why is not a God who created the universe from nothing, with a set of natural laws to yield eventually His creation, man,  much more wonderful than the creation described in Genesis?   As Paul Davies put it
"Design-by-laws is incomparably more intelligent than design-by-miracles.”Paul Davies, The Cosmic Jackpot: Why our universe is just right for life." p.200)
Yet, my faith in miracles does not contradict my belief that science is a wonderful  tool to understand the world, to help us appreciate the beauty described in Psalm 19A:
"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. "(KJV)


(added 22/6/17).    When I say I believe in miracles, I believe in those that are essential to the faith--the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension of Jesus, ...--and those that have empirical evidence (even though we are not required to believe in them)--Eucharistic miracles, Healing miracles.   I believe in the possibility of miracles, but I do not believe in those that are not essential to my faith as a Catholic--Eve formed from Adam's rib, as one example, or the Genesis 1-3 being true literally in every detail.


*The question is not rhetorical.  I am asking the advice of priests and others knowledgeable in the Church about this.   I have also examined closely the sections on Canon Law concerned with doctrine, dogma, and Papal Infallibility (see here, for example).   The several priests whom I have consulted echo essentially Cardinal Ratzinger's words from "In the Beginning",  quoted above.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

You Lie! Said the Geocentrist to the Catholic Scientist*

Galileo's Trial--adapted from Wikimedia Commons 
“People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” --Martin Luther, Table Talk of Martin Luther
"The plain and obvious sense of these verses [Gen 1:14-19] is that God created the celestial bodies immediately and instantly, solely by His own omnipotent power and without support from natural processes over long ages of time as the idea of cosmic evolution suggests. That this is indeed the way the Lord created the universe is confirmed by the commentaries of the church fathers like St. Ephrem the Syrian..."--Dr. Thomas Seiler, Cosmology, Thermodynamics and the Christian Doctrine of Creation (
Last night I dreamt that I was judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and defendant in a trial in which I was accused of heresy, because I believed in the scientific evidence for cosmology and evolution, rather than the literal truth of Genesis: my conversion to the Catholic faith was, therefore, a fraud.   Here, as best as I can recall (having fudged the details) is an account of that trial.   (I'm not learned in the law, and it was a dream, so beagles, please excuse the deviations from procedure.)


The defendant has foresworn the baptismal vows he made on conversion to the Catholic faith;   he has traduced the role of Scripture in the Dogma and Doctrine of the Church by proposing allegorical interpretations consistent with unproved scientific theories--the Big Bang, evolution.   The defendant, Mr. Kurland, has attempted to hoodwink faithful Catholics by presenting nonsensical arguments of scientists who refuse to accept the limits of science and the reality of the single universe that God created for us, created at a single time, to adore as part of His overall creation.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY, JESUIT SCIENTIST***: Objection,  m'Lord, Judge Kurland!****.  Please ask the prosecution to refer to the defendant by his proper title, "Dr. Kurland".

JUDGE: Prosecutor Kurland, please refer to the defendant by his proper title, Dr. Kurland.

PROSECUTOR: To continue after this untimely interuption!  Further, he has falsely declared  that our Holy Mother Church approves of these heresies, by taking arguments from recent Encyclicals out of context and ignoring edicts of Church Councils from Medieval times.    He has tried to reconcile the teachings of the Catholic Church with fallacious modern scientific theories, particularly those of quantum mechanics ( 1, 23, 4, 5, 6).

For these offenses and others too unspeakable to mention, we demand that the defendant be banned from blogging and writing,  and sentenced to hard time in a room where he will encounter his secret fear*****.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY, JESUIT SCIENTIST: Cross-examination of Prosecutor******:
Question (defense attorney): My learned geocentrist--what would you say about this comment  by a fourth century sage:
"Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,... and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn."
Response (prosecutor):  I would say that "sage" was probably a pagan, and knew nothing about Christianity.

Response (defense attorney):  Then you would be surprised to learn that the sage was St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great theologians and interpreters of our faith.  The quote was taken from "De Genesi Litteram (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)".

Question (defense attorney): You said the defendant
"falsely declared that our Holy Mother Church approves of these heresies, by taking arguments from recent Encyclicals out of context and ignoring edicts of Church Councils from Medieval times. He has tried to reconcile the teachings of the Catholic Church with fallacious modern scientific theories." 
 How do reconcile that comment with following quotes from Pope St. John Paul II?
"there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points."  St. John Paul II, 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.
 "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish."  St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.
Interjection (judge):  You're getting off-track, Defense Attorney Kurland.   Get to the point!

Reply (defense attorney):  My apologies,  M'Lord, Judge Kurland.   I was trying to show that the prosecutor's statement is not correct if he means to imply that the Church does not approve of scientific discoveries.   May I continue?

Reply (judge): Proceed, but keep it relevant.

Question (defense attorney):  According to  posts on the web site of a group you represent, both evolution and the Big Bang cosmology are false, heresies that contradict scripture.   Is that correct?

Response (prosecutor): It is indeed.  Unscientific, false, heretical.

Question (defense attorney):  What do you say then to  the fact that cornerstone, ground-breaking theories underlying evolution and the Big Bang cosmology were produced by Catholic religious:  genetics by Br. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian Friar,  and the Big Bang hypothesis by Abbe Fr. Georg LeMaitre (which he called "The Primeval Atom").

Response (prosecutor): I'd say that religious can commit heresies too.   Look at Giordano Bruno.

Interjection (judge):  That is quite enough.

Interjection (defendant):  The prosecutor is showing a bias and a disregard of reality.

Interjection (judge): Mr. Kurland, that last comment was entirely out of order (although I agree with it).   Be careful or I'll eject you from the court.

Objection (defense attorney):  M,Lord, Judge Kurland, again, just to keep the record straight, the defendant's title is Dr. Kurland.

Reply (judge): duly noted.

Question (defense attorney):  You said the defendant has attempted to reconcile the teachings of the Catholic Church with contemporary science, including quantum mechanics.    Can you point out any errors in theology he has discussed?

Response (prosecutor):  No I can't, but I bet there are some.

Question (defense attorney):  Are there any parts of modern science you think are valid representations of how the world works?  And following that, if some parts are valid, why are others not?

Response  (prosecutor):  I can't in a limited space answer that question.

Comment (defense attorney):  In other words, you can't answer the question and the charge is not justified.

Interjection (judge):   This farce has gone on long enough.


At this point the dream ended, as the Judge was pronouncing the verdict "I
find the defendant .... "   (Dear reader, you fill in the blank.).   And I never did get around to finding out whether I was guilty of heresy, but I hope and pray that I am not, asking God for guidance.


*This post is, more or less, the converse of another post of mine: " 'What is truth?' said the scientist to the theologian. "   A mirror image, if you will.

**I would put a name here (you can see some by going to the web site), but who wants to put intelligent words into the mouth of somebody who wouldn't understand them?

***There are, I believe, many Jesuit scientists, past and present, who might come to my defense, but I wouldn't want to put my stupid words into their more intelligent mouths, so in my dream, I was the Defense Attorney.

****The judge is also me, but the dream is in an English court so he is wearing a wig and addressed as "M'Lord.    (I'd been watching reruns of "Rumpole of the Bailey" that evening.)

*****My secret fear is being forced to watch rebroadcasts of "The View" for 16 hours / day.   What's yours?

******I told you this dream did not proceed according to standard legal practice.