Between How and Why


The discovery of a new particle identified as the long-elusive Higgs boson has once again enlivened discussion about the interdependence of faith, religion and science. Boldly heralded as the discovery of the century, the boson is expected to prove the righteousness of the Standard Model, the ruling theory of particle physics which explains why objects have mass. And, as has always happened throughout history whenever tremendous successes have been achieved through human reason, talks once again have turned to the demise of God.

Great scientific discoveries are invariably followed by great religious concerns that expanding knowledge about the universe necessarily narrows the space occupied by faith and religion. Yet, somehow, the overwhelming majority of mankind has not lost faith in heavenly powers. As Werner Karl Heisenberg, awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering of quantum mechanics, once explained to 1935 Noble Prize winning physicist and friend Wolfgang Pauli, science and religion provide answers for different questions: Science answers the question “How?” whereas religion has long been explaining “Why?”

We can say about a ship calling in at a port in Copenhagen that it has such and such engine, burns such and such fuel, while burning throttle valve controls the fuel….. and as a result, the ship sails. It can also be said that the ship sails because it was hired by a company to carry cargo from America to Europe. The first description will be scientific whereas the second one will be religious, Heisenberg explained to Pauli.

Albert Einstein made that same distinction in his 1956 essay “Science and Religion”: “[T]he scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other…. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations.” Goals are determined by each religion and person in accordance with their faith.

When speaking in terms of harmonizing religion and science, one could also say that all religions, proceeding from their diversity, would find peaceful coexistence with scientific reasoning difficult. Religions talk about the essence of human life, but sometimes also feel the need to explain things that fall entirely within the competence of science. And therein lies the conflict.

For example, in the ancient world, God was seen as a force of nature; He lived in this world and any natural phenomenon known to man was attributed to His power. Such a God who lives in a world intent on determining how it rains or how lightening appears could easily be extinguished by reason and science. From that perspective, even the outer-world view of Soviet Cosmonaut Yiru Gagarin, who declared upon returning from the cosmos that he did not find God there, would be vindicated. But reason would not so easily prevail over a God who does not live “in this world.”

It was such a God that Paul the Apostle introduced to the pagan world: “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.”

The God proclaimed by Paul to have created the world out of nothing and to differ infinitely from His creation is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Such a God is immune from criticism. Roland Barthes said that there is a huge wall erected between the Christian God and humans and that human minds cannot penetrate that wall until they open the door between the worldly and the otherworldly.

It is, of course, as impossible to prove by reason the impenetrability of that wall as it is to prove by reason the existence of that otherworldly God. Each is an object of faith. The religious narrative which describes God as omniscient makes criticism by reasoning impossible. Coming closer to such a God reveals the limits of reason. Those limits have occupied not only religion but European rational philosophy as well. From Emannuel Kant to Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosophers have arrived at the idea that the human mind as an apparatus of knowledge is limited in perception. Given that humans are limited and flawed creatures, it is impossible for them ever to have full knowledge and complete perception.

To illustrate that point, try to imagine “nothingness.” We have no idea what nothingness looks like. In trying to imagine it, an image of space normally surfaces in the mind, though space is “something” itself and therefore different from “nothingness.” Or, try to imagine, with our three-dimensional world experience, the one-dimensional string which modern physics talk about; that is, imagine something which does not have height and width but only length. That would prove as difficult to perceive or understand as the dogma of the Trinity – one God with three hypostases. Even more impossible is to imagine an eleven-dimensional membrane. So it turns out that both physics and theology talk about unimaginable things with the only difference being that you come to the former by means of mathematical formulas while the latter cannot be reduced to that.

Some people may not trust in the God of Judeo-Christian tradition, but they cannot prove His non-existence either. Science possesses no more than four percent of the knowledge of the universe (ninety-six percent of the universe still cannot be seen by humans). Greater knowledge of the universe lies ahead for us. Yet, even the development of rational reasoning shows us the limits of ratio itself – knowing everything is as unimaginable as knowing nothing.

It was Judeo-Christian teaching of the otherworldly God which contributed to the creation of a desacralized environment in the West. That teaching has proved to be the most fertile ground for researching nature and has given birth to science. In an environment where the sun and the moon are objects of reverence, their study might well be regarded as blasphemy whereas an environment in which they represent creations of the world architect provides the best climate for the formation and acceptance of scientific ideas.

True, there have been instances when the Church has defied scientific ideas or has claimed to be able to respond to the scientific question “How?” But, at the end of the day, science and religion have learned how to coexist.

The “Big Bang” theory which modern physics recognizes as the creation of the world was first put forward by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest. The Big Bang collision is believed to have dispersed massive radiation energy which instantly congealed into the so-called Higgs force which over time was transmitted across the universe by the Higgs boson (both named after British physics theorist Peter Higgs.) Stanley Jaki, the renowned historian of science and Catholic priest, reckoned that Catholic theology helped Father Lemaître to advance such an extravagant theory as the Big Bang.

The idea of primeval atom – the point of singularity – means that all worldly existence is concentrated into that single physical point. Christian dogma, however, says that Christ is present in the tiniest crumb of bread which transforms into the body of Christ during the Eucharist Sacrament.

The conflict between scientific ideas and religious dogma is most evident in an environment in which either the faith becomes arrogant or the reason – on the one hand, explaining everything in terms of the heavenly power and, on the other hand, burdening reason with an entire load of care about people.

In the First Century, one of the major problems Christians encountered was determining the relationship between knowledge and faith. French Christian philosopher and historian Étienne Gilson explained the choice faced by the early Church was either to proclaim the New Testament and divine revelation as the only essential knowledge or to admit that mankind could also benefit from the knowledge of infidels and philosophers achieved through reason bestowed on all mankind by God. Reason gained the upper hand in the Church – if reason is given by God then the creation of reason is essentially good. Fundamentalists nevertheless believed, both today and in the past, that the Bible could be used to define nature.

Fundamentalism exists in science as well. That can be seen whenever science assumes the task of answering those questions which cannot be established with rational methodology.

Disturbing the harmony which exists among faith, reason and justice – viewed by Pope Benedict XVI as the three foundations of Western civilization – could have irreparable consequences. Twentieth Century cultural skepticism and metaphysical nihilism resulted in the “Death of God Theology.” Cardinal Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism describes how, after the crisis of faith, the second pillar of civilization – Greek rationalism – also started falling apart. The first signs of its collapse, in the opinion of the influential Roman Catholic theologian, were expressed in irrationalism which led to two World Wars. The situation today is more complicated and more dire. As American Catholic theologian George Weigel notes, when biblical religion and the age of reason no longer exist, the third pillar of Western civilization – justice – also begins to fall.

Pope Benedict XVI often speaks of the “dictatorship of relativism” which recognizes nothing as definitive. When ethical orientations are not aligned, not only is religious freedom jeopardized but also the notion of freedom as such. Western belief in fundamental human rights and individual freedoms loses ground because personal dignity is viewed by modern rationalism as an entirely unsupportable concept. Personal dignity derives from the belief that a person is to be respected merely by virtue of that person’s existence. That concept is incomprehensible for those who reject the coexistence of mankind and evolutionary experience with belief in the almightiness of reason.

In his five-volume Order and History, political philosopher Eric Voegelin compared reliance on reason without critical analysis with the old Gnostic Christian heresy. Equating modern political ideologies such as Marxism and Nazism with Gnosticism, Voegelin wrote that, just as Gnostics aspired to transform a completely ordered universe radically by means of magic and esoteric knowledge, Marxism and Nazism tried to implement revolutionary change by means of scientific methodologies.

Ancient and modern Gnostics believed that the “flaws” of the universe could be fixed by means of special perception, education and knowledge. They aimed “to Immanentize the Eschaton” – to create a heaven on earth.

Voegelin saw Gnosticism as motivated to change people and the universe fundamentally in order to make them perfect. Heaven on earth could only be created by a single distinguished group, an elite super race equipped with special knowledge (magic – science) of how to improve humanity.

That starkly differs from Christian preaching of absolution, whereby each person finds salvation in reconciliation with God. Voegelin’s five-volume study exposed the totalitarian impulse which results from elevating one group above all the rest.

And that happens when the humanist tradition grown from Christian roots finally arrives at the opinion that faith can be restricted because of the inviolability of a person’s free will. It can give absolution to sin and blasphemy. In contrast, rationalist fundamentalists totally reject anything they regard as nonsense. Thus, violating the boundary between religion and science results in religious fundamentalism, on the one hand, and rationalistic intolerance, on the other.


This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 110, published 23 July 2012.


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