We Need More Scientist Saints

July 04, 2012

A Simple Life

Christopher Hitchens died recently. Much could be said of his life, but the quality that seems strongest is his biting honestly. He was brutally, scathingly honest in voicing his opinion, and his honesty broke only when he trended towards sensationalism.

Hitchens wrote with such opinionated honesty in a stunningly negative obituary of Mother Teresa in 2003. It would be memorable for no other reason than its unusual negativity towards a woman endeared to so many. But I remember it for one peculiar phrase Hitchens used. He said, “Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.”

However true or false this statement may be, the idea behind it is powerful enough to be one of the main reasons the educated elite around the world trend towards atheism.

The perception of religion around the world is enjoined with the idea of a simple life, especially in America. An uneducated superstition about how religion affects our world makes the impression of a Luddite faith even more distinct. Technologically, one need go no farther than the Quaker communities. Their use of arbitrarily simple tools and no electricity make an obvious example of simplicity. Culturally, the southern evangelicals tend to lead this trend. They thump their Bibles and quote out-of-context Gospel verses or make sure we know that “everything happens for a reason.” (one of my favorite phrases). Religious faith has caused people to claim that the will of God affects everything from the outcome of the Presidential election to September 11th to a touchdown throw. Religion even let’s people turn their faulty faith on the funeral’s of dead soldiers, as we’ve seen from the Westboro Baptist Church.

I hesitate strongly to correlate all of these examples under one bucket. Still, there’s a sort of intellectual shoulder shrug that often happens when people relate their faith with the world around them. They provide overly-simplified causes and patterns to make themselves feel better about ignorance in a vast and wild world. This sort of teleological argument happens everywhere. Subsistence tribes around the world conjure supernatural explanations for all sorts of phenomena from why the shaman died to where the rains came from. We do the exact same thing to explain car crashes or good luck. It’s natural - humans are pattern-seekers in everything - and I don’t intend to provide judgment here, only observation.

The concern with this simplification is that the world is not a simple place. It is extraordinarily complex, and as we learn more and more, it only gets more complex and intriguing.

New characteristics of our world over time show us just how complex it is. Even something as self-evident as a global concept of “now” is less than two hundred years old, when telegraphs were invented and became popular. Before that, all news was old news in an almost historical sense. Time zones didn’t exist or need to exist. Noon was noon and that was that. (Some new clients of telegraphs would walk in with a written message to send to a friend, and then complain that the message wasn’t sent because they were still holding the piece of paper on which it was written.) The easy duplication and communication of information was totally and completely brand new. We take it for granted today. What, I wonder, will our grandchildren take for granted?

Most of the ways in which we illuminate our beautifully complex world fall under a single heading: science. Science, in conjunction with her bosom friends mathematics and engineering, is the method by which we use observations and tests to provide explanations to the world around us. It’s a way of systematizing knowledge.

Unfortunately, it seems to most people as if religion and science are fighting a centuries old battle of literally Copernican proportions. Copernicus is the last great scientist most people think of in reference to the Church, and all they know of him was that he was shunned and fought. Most don’t know that he was also a cleric of Canon Law and may have even become a priest.

Wonder and Beauty

This past Christmas, my five year old godson had a “Science Kit” at the top of his list of presents. I was so excited by this that I couldn’t help but fulfill his request. He is now frustrating his Mom endlessly with cries of “Come see this!” because he’s found something new under his microscope. He’s looked at everything from the fibers of paper, the tiny portrait of Lincoln in his memorial on the back of a penny, rocks, quartz, paramecium, and algae from a stream near his house. He’s completely excited by his observations.

I was more excited about giving this present than any other - including a Bible or some other religious gift - for a very fundamental reason. At the age of five, my godson is only just learning to read. He much prefers to scrape his knees outside and climb fences that are too tall. He wouldn’t like the Bible at all, and not a single word would have sunk in for years. On the other hand, a science kit provides a very practical excitement about one of the most natural human sentiments: learning and a search for the truth. Truth is the thing that both religion and science seek and humans lack.

The perceived battles between science and religion through the centuries are caused by this fundamental search for truth. Science is the human method by which we test the data we can consume from the world around us. Religion is the prescription of truth based on faith, philosophy and our reaction to the world around us.

While I was not enthused about Hitchens’ Mother Teresa obit, I have also seen him engage in very dignified and exciting debates. Several excerpts of one such debate between Hitchens and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete are on Youtube, in which they discuss the great questions of science and religion. Hitchens makes an exceptional point in the debate. He separates the “numinous” - that is, the transcendent - from the supernatural. And he cites examples, saying that Michelangelo could paint the Sistine Chapel without belief, that Verdi could write the Requiem without belief, and that anyone can see the stunning beauty and grandeur of the Greek Parthenon without believing in the ancient Greek religions. He says in fact that a miracle would not make him believe, but rather, in homage to Hume, would make him doubt even his own senses.

As great as Hitchens’ observations are, Msgr. Albacete makes the debate. He interjects at this point to make his agreement with Hitchens’ known, and in fact to say that Jesus Christ himself would agree - that Christ did not think very much of miracles. Albacete paraphrases Christ’s words that they will not believe even if you raise a man from the dead, and adds that Christ put everything on love: the world would believe only to the extent that you love one another.

How different a perspective is this from a priest than what we might normally expect from a believer? Msgr. Albacete is certainly a remarkable priest with a vibrant past. Now in charge of the Communion & Liberation movement in the US, he was a physicist before donning his collar. Albacete goes on to say that he is in complete agreement with the rational, logical explanations for unbelief that Hitchens’ provides. Instead, he says, there is something personal, something about how to live life and learn love that does not allow him to stop with the rational.

The difference between a religious trust in the supernatural and the fundamental faith of Msgr. Albacete is quite astounding. The supernatural and simple faith of many religious as it affects the world is subject to the logical and rational workings of the world. A faith based on the orthogonal perspective of love cannot be. It would be wrong to say that science fails here; rather, religion and science are “two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside” as Freeman Dyson* says. Science cannot explain the radical love of Christ just as religion cannot deduce the laws of quantum electrodynamics.

Cicadas and Evolution

It seems reasonable at this point to provide an explanation for what prompted this essay. I recently had a great conversation with a friend regarding the Presidential views on the teaching of intelligent design in schools as a competitor to evolution in science class. I vehemently disagree with this idea on two levels. First, I cannot express enough discontent that this relatively small issue gains such large traction at the level of the election of the President, especially because voters use it as a barometer of religious belief. Second, and more importantly, intelligent design is not science. This is completely fundamental, and no amount of wishing will make it so. Evolution as a theory is the description of patterns of change over time that fit biologic data. Intelligent design is philosophical in nature, or sometimes religious. It’s not that intelligent design has no place in school, it simply has no place in the science classroom. It most definitely belongs in a philosophy, civics, or history class and would be an exceedingly interesting field of study.

This question on intelligent design naturally brought about an even more basic question of evolution. Evolution, put extremely simply, is a change over time in organisms. It is a real phenomenon. A huge amount of the population still has problems with this, and I’m convinced that the problem is mostly the word “theory”. Theory can have two meanings. On the one hand, theory is a sort of hypothesis to a line of questioning. On the other, it is a more rigorous description based off of available data. Evolutionary theory is theoretical in the same was as the Pythagorean Theory or plate-tectonic theory. It is a real phenomenon evident everywhere from the fossil record to fruit-fly experiments to cultural changes to computer programming (Evolutionary algorithms can be used to provide solutions to complex optimization problems by inspecting and evolving patterns over time from a starting population.) We shouldn’t be surprised by the issue of lexicology in science. The word “science” itself is used and misused - and I’ve completely bastardized it herein. Science is a synecdoche of itself. My friend Edwin best described it: “science [is] a methodology, science [is] an institution, and science [is] a body of knowledge.”

In evolution, scientific examples of hidden complexity abound. The 13 and 17 year cicada populations are some of my favorite examples of a certain trait evolving over time. How many kids have asked why these creatures only appear very occasionally? Computer models of predator-prey behavior have shown that these intervals evolved (were learned perhaps?) over time based on the gestational cycles of the predators. By skipping years, the cicadas are able to thrive when the predators will have the smallest effect. By trending towards a prime number of years, the cicadas skip all the predators with 1, 2, 3, or 4 year cycles.

It’s important to note too that, at a philosophical level, the scientific notion of evolution does not proscribe the philosophical notion of intelligent design. There is no evidence that the two are mutually exclusive. Pope Pius XII distinguishes between the body and the soul in Humani Generis and provides for the scientific study of evolution, “in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter”.

Evolution has been the largest wedge between science and religion since heliocentrism. Ironically, perhaps the best view of these two actors comes from evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who described science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”. Gould borrowed the term “magisteria” from Humani Generis and in fact uses the notion of the soul as one of his prime examples:

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

I foster a fear that, as pleasant as this solution of mutual exclusivity may seem, it remains too simplistic. Certainly many sociobiologists, and chiefly Richard Dawkins among them, would disagree. I remain tepid myself, as my rational and scientific outlook holds the (perhaps delusional) notion that the entire world is a knowable system. Maybe it isn’t. Certainly there is a third, and oft overlooked, player in the game: philosophy.

Philosophy and the study of knowledge, reality, existence, and truth provides a confluence of questions in which science and religion sometimes get lost. Nobody disputes the science around organic chemistry, for example, unless it somehow interferes with their (possibly religious) worldview. Religion is a system of belief that hopes to provide frameworks to these sorts of questions, just as science sometimes does, both from completely different directions. The questions of philosophy are the views we see through Dyson’s two windows. Here perhaps we could learn from Wittgenstein’s view in his philosophical opus Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which begins with the Lemma “The world is everything that is the case.” He ends, one hundred pages later, with the statement “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

While it’s possible for science and religion to overlap and each contribute to the aggregated learning of a given philosophical question, perhaps it’s enough to provide for some humility in each perspective.

Scientist Saints

Throughout the history of Christianity, the focus of Christ’s radical love has been incredibly personal. St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Francis of Assisi all provide examples of this overwhelming power in their ways of life. More recently, St. Therese of Lisieux described the most humble Way of the Little Flower. Her letters provide insight into an intense and utterly small focus on love in little steps. Mother Teresa embodied this same Way for our generation. She provided simple examples of love that were right in front of her.

In this tradition, Hitchens’ criticism is completely unfounded. But his commentary still points out a glaring hole in the fabric of capabilities that love can provide today.

In the past, the great minds and thinkers of the Church gravitated towards higher episcopal positions or seats of philosophical thinking. They made tremendous impacts in learning on philosophy and on the movement of the Church and the people towards love. But the Church has a tremendous history of scientific thinkers as well, one that often goes unnoticed.

Among priests and clerics alone we have many tremendous examples. Fr. Gregor Mendel founded genetics. Msgr. Georges Lemaitre hypothesized the Big Bang. William of Ockham - who proposed Occam’s Razor - was a Franciscan. Fr. Walter Ong studied the cultural shift from oral history to literacy. Fr. Stanley Jaki received his doctorate in physics under the advisement of a Nobel Laureate. There are craters on the moon named after scholarly priests and the Vatican Observatory still does astronomical research in Arizona.

What’s so important about this tradition is the radical shift that science has provided the world in the last few hundred years. When the Church was debating heliocentric theories in the 16th century, the application of this science was entirely philosophical. Today, the impact of science on the world is tremendous. Science and engineering has provided an abundance of energy, sanitation, machinery, information and higher standards of life. Science and engineering have moved in a dramatic way from strictly theoretical to something that can touch the everyday and the mundane. It hasn’t changed in any drastic way, it’s tools have simply gotten much better. Computers are only the latest in a series of world changing scientific and industrial movements. Scientists have the capability to impact the world profoundly.

In the 40s and 50s, Norman Borlaug was doing experimental plant genetics on wheat crops in Mexico. His work drove new varieties of dwarf wheat with huge increases in per-acre harvest rates and resistance to drought and disease. In the 1960s, Borlaug brought these new strains of wheat to India in the midst of a population explosion. The population was growing so quickly that most experts expected tens or even hundreds of millions to starve to death. Economist Paul Ehrlich wrote a book called The Population Bomb describing a frightening future of poverty and hunger. Fortunately, his prophesy proved false. Over the next decade, Borlaug worked around India to seed the new wheat strains and increase crop yields. With his help, the Green Revolution in India took off, crops exploded, and the multitudes were fed. Later, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

In some ways perhaps, the small acts of love conceived by some of our greatest saints are no different than the small curiosity of Borlaug. He was interested in a small problem, plant genetics and agronomy, and was able to improve the lives of hundreds of millions. Here is a complex scientific solution to a conceptually simple but practically complex problem - feeding the multitudes. Borlaug helped ensure that they could be fed, so that later Mother Teresa could help inspire the same country towards love.

Similar examples of small curiosities making big impacts are available today. One of my favorites is Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO at Microsoft. Myhrvold led a team to develop an extraordinary and wildly fun to watch laser system that literally shoots the wings off mosquitoes to prevent the spread of malaria. They’ve also studied the migration of malaria over time in populations to better understand the most effective ways to prevent the disease.

Computer scientists often play huge roles in this type of work. A certain type of person migrates towards manipulating computers - which requires a sort of brutal and disinterested honesty to perform well - and seems to be a peculiar flavor of scientist. Computer scientists (or hackers or nerds if you prefer) bend computer systems to their will by being (sometimes annoyingly) efficient at discovering the truth of rules and systems. They manipulate those rules for their benefit and learn exactly what inputs are needed to generate certain outputs. When computer scientists take this skill into other fields, they continue to apply it rigorously.

We need more examples of this. We need more scientist saints. Just as we need the guidance of saints for simple interpersonal acts of love, we need the guidance of saints for turning simple scientific, mathematical or engineering study into acts of love.

The Church calls on us to contribute each in our own way as members of the Body of Christ. The Way of the Little Flower and Mother Teresa’s focus on small acts of love are often much more approachable to more people. Opus Dei helps us find holiness in our daily lives. Still, the capacity now to influence the world positively is larger than ever before in history and there are more ways to do it. The more examples of this love we have, the better off we’ll be. Most people don’t know about the Vatican Observatory of the work of Fr. Walter Ong. They only know the fight of Galileo or the many Christians that dispute Charles Darwin.

The capacity to turn science towards love presents one other problem in Hitchens’ obit of Mother Teresa. He ridiculed her love of suffering and saw it as a huge paradox in her work. The problem in his reasoning can be seen in the contrast to suffering. The opposite of suffering isn’t comfort, as the modern humanistic view might have us believe, but apathy. Mother Teresa loved suffering because she loved. The many poor in India are not a mark of failure, but act of loving the poor is a sign of success.

The better we can turn all of our human endeavors towards love, including science, the more we can reconcile humanity to Christ, to itself, to the understanding of our world, and to the understanding of each other.

In the meantime, I’ll pray to Albertus Magnus - the patron of natural scientists, Isidore of Seville - the patron of computer scientists, Dominic - the patron of scientists, and Patrick - the patron of engineers, for a call to reconcile science to love and for love to be more ably seen in our human understanding of the world around us.

  • Freeman Dyson (one of my heroes) - a more complete quote: “Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect. Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions.” from his acceptance speed of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge68.html

Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.ArchiveTumble