SCIENCE SEEKING UNDERSTANDING.
The conversation between science and religion has suffered two sad losses recently, with the deaths of Peter E. Hodgson, the English physicist, on December 8, and Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, the historian and philosopher of science, on April 7. I never met either, but the news of their deaths, coming so close together, stirred old memories. Thirty-one years ago, as a graduate student browsing the shelves of Princeton’s physics library, I was startled to find, nestled among the technical treatises, volume 128 of the Twentieth-Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism. It was written by a professor of physics at Oxford named Hodgson and contained a section on “Catholicism and Science.” Not long afterward, I purchased a copy of The Road of Science and the Ways to God and learned that its author, Stanley Jaki, was an acclaimed “priest and physicist.”
To understand my excitement at these discoveries, you must realize how far apart the worlds of science and religion seemed in those days and how isolated a religious scientist could feel. Though many of the great men of science had been devout Christians, from Kepler in the seventeenth century to Maxwell in the nineteenth, this began to change at the dawn of the twentieth. As Jaki noted, “the straightforward appeal from nature’s order to nature’s God was already disappearing from the writings and addresses of the younger generation.”
In the writings of Jaki and Hodgson, however, readers saw a different attitude. They held fast to the truths both of science and revelation, without feeling the need “to cut and pare at the facts” (to borrow a phrase from Maxwell). They believed in the strict lawfulness of nature, without denying either God’s freedom or human freedom. They had faith in the competence of physics to explain the physical, while recognizing that there is reality beyond the physical. They accepted evolutionary biology as the great and fruitful branch of science it is, while rejecting the dreary materialist philosophies that have grown on it like fungi. Jaki and Hodgson were among the first of a new wave—a wave that has now grown to include many scientists of international reputation who also defend their robust Christian faith: John C. Polkinghorne, for example, and Owen Gingerich, Micha Heller, Kenneth Miller, and Francis S. Collins.
Stanley Jaki was born in Hungary in 1924 and entered the Benedictine monastery of Pannonhalma in 1942. After obtaining a doctorate in systematic theology in Rome, he moved to the United States, spending four decades on the faculty at Seton Hall University. In 1958, he obtained a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from Fordham University under the supervision of Nobel laureate Victor F. Hess (himself a devout Catholic). Though Jaki is often described as a physicist, he did no scientific research after his degree but chose to devote his prodigious energy to the history and philosophy of science (and, to a lesser extent, theology), producing more than forty books and several hundred articles. He was chosen to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in both 1974 and 1975, and in 1987 he was awarded the Templeton Prize.
Peter Hodgson was born in 1928, and, at the age of twenty-three, he received his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the Imperial College. In 1958, he was invited to Oxford, where he became head of the Nuclear Physics Theoretical Group and a fellow of Corpus Christi College, where he remained until his retirement. Aside from his technical publications in nuclear physics, which included a dozen books and more than two hundred research papers, most of his writing concerned nuclear energy, the environment, and the impact of science on society. He wrote much less than did Jaki; most of his work on the relation of science and faith is contained in four books published between 2002 and 2005.
One can see a great deal of Jaki’s influence in Hodgson’s writing, both in topics treated and in points of view, and they often arrived at similar conclusions. Their writing styles, however, differed dramatically. Jaki’s tone was often polemical, and sometimes the thread of his argument got lost among the frequent (and often biting) asides on the ideas of others. This tendency grew with time and was doubtless one reason his work has less influence among scholars than it deserves. Hodgson was more balanced in his judgments, and his writing had exceptional grace and clarity.
As a historian of science, Jaki made several significant contributions, including three books on the development of ideas in astronomy and one work that led a reviewer to conclude that “Jaki’s research forces a complete rewriting of the eighteenth-century history of cosmology.” He is best known, however, for his ideas on the origins of modern science. Here he was a disciple and tireless champion of the work of the physicist, philosopher, and historian of science Pierre Duhem.
Before Duhem, the prevailing view was that there was hardly any science worth mentioning done in the Middle Ages, and histories jumped directly from the ancient Greeks to Copernicus. Duhem’s monumental ten-volume Système du Mondechanged all that. Duhem showed that medieval thinkers had achieved several major breakthroughs in the understanding of motion, anticipating key ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.
Jaki’s contribution was to make Duhem’s discoveries known outside specialist circles. Even more important and central to Jaki’s legacy were his ideas on the role that Christian beliefs played in the rise of modern science. In several works, especially Science and Creation (1974), he documented the many “stillbirths” of science in the great civilizations of the past and traced them to “organismic” conceptions of the universe and to belief in an eternal cosmic cycle where events exactly repeated themselves and the past and the future were the same. Into that cosmic fatalism burst the Christian revelation, which speaks of the unique and unrepeatable event of the Incarnation. Biblical time has a beginning and a direction so that every event had real causes and real consequences. The world is thus dynamic, and its dynamics can be studied.
Moreover, Jaki argued, the doctrine of Christ as the “only begotten” forestalled any conception of the universe as itself a necessary and eternal emanation of the divine. In creation ex nihilo, with a creator who is good, the universe itself must be good and therefore worth investigating. As the creator is the logos, the universe is intelligible and therefore capable of being investigated—and human beings, made in the image of the creator, are intelligent and capable of investigating it. As the creator created freely, the universe is contingent and therefore can be investigated only empirically, rather than by speculative or a priori methods. It was not Christianity that held back modern science, Jaki noted, but the organismic and cyclic universe of Aristotle, which the Christian imagination ultimately burst like an old wineskin.
As Christianity helped to provide a sound metaphysical foundation for science, so, argued Jaki, bad metaphysics has led repeatedly to bad science. He traced in rich historical detail how apriorism, whether in its Aristotelian, Cartesian, or German Idealist forms, always gives rise to wildly erroneous scientific speculations. At the other extreme, crude empiricisms, such as those of Hume, Mill, Comte, and Mach, prove equally incompetent to account for the basic ingredient of all true science: known facts about the world outside our minds.
These repeated embarrassing failures of philosophers to come to grips with science engendered a powerful anti-philosophical prejudice among scientists that continues to this day. Ironically, the naive attempt to do without philosophy produces simpleminded philosophical assumptions all the more dangerous for being unexamined. In particular, it leads to the idea that science consists of nothing but observations (conceived of as sensory input) and logical or mathematical deductions from them. This dovetails with an ontology that has room only for physical entities and mathematical laws, and with a view of the human mind as a mere information-processing machine. Along with this comes a contempt for all knowledge claims that cannot be subjected to scientific tests.
The central theme of Jaki’s writing is the primacy of facts and our ability to know them. As a historian of science, his great strength was the concreteness of his knowledge of the facts of scientific history, which came from a vast reading of primary sources and his training in physics. As a theologian, he insisted on the facticity of the Incarnation and Resurrection. And, as a philosopher, he saw himself above all as a defender of philosophical realism. He wrote, “If a Christian has to philosophize, it is best for him if he does so with full consciousness of objective physical reality, and of the events that make human history, events no less objective.” Unfortunately, he sometimes saw subjectivism where it did not exist. He misread Lonergan, for example, as a Kantian in disguise.
The fear of subjectivism led both Jaki and Hodgson to a vehement rejection of the traditional understanding of quantum mechanics, against which they inveighed constantly. They hoped that physics would eventually return to a more Newtonian framework, despite the fact that this would entail a return also to the mechanistic and deterministic cosmos from which quantum mechanics had once delivered physics—a deliverance that Jaki celebrated in many passages. In any event, such a return is highly unlikely. In my view, they despaired far too quickly of the possibility of reconciling the traditional understanding of quantum mechanics with a sound metaphysics, challenging though that task may be. They might have paid greater heed to one of Jaki’s own observations: “Truly, there is no exaggeration in the words of H. Margenau, who referred to the ‘enormous metaphysical wealth reposing largely untapped in modern physical theory.’”
There is also untapped wealth in the writings of Stanley Jaki and Peter Hodgson. Not many people can do the kind of work they did. Both Jaki and Hodgson quoted with approval Duhem’s statement that “in order to speak of questions where science and Catholic theology touch one another, one must have done ten or fifteen years of study in the pure sciences.” Hodgson added, “It is also highly desirable that [one] be philosophically and theologically literate, and that is a much more difficult criterion to satisfy.” The laborers in this part of the vineyard are rather few. But their numbers are increasing, and those who come after Stanley Jaki and Peter Hodgson will find the labor lighter for having their work to build on.
Stephen M. Barr // FIRST THINGS, june-july 2009.
Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware and the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faithand A Student’s Guide to Natural Science.