Is the Christian faith reasonable? Can an assent to the claims of revelation be made today with intellectual responsibility, facing the full light of the facts that the natural sciences have afforded us? Can the existence of God be in some way proven?
Is Christianity a reasonable religion? With all the head scratching going on over creation theories and humanity's place within them, Word on Fire blog contributor Andrew Law explains Pope Benedict XVI's take, which manages to maintain both science's rationality and God's grace. Looking for some illumination? Read on.
These types of questions are so commonplace today because they cut to the core of our society’s ongoing crises of faith. It is abundantly clear that for many young (and not so young) people genuinely seeking after the truth, science- particularly evolutionary biology and neuroscience- seems to threaten if not utterly discredit the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity: God's creation of the world, humanity's unique place within it, and the existence of spiritual beings—good and evil—capable of affecting material realities.
For its part, evolutionary theory provides a compelling and elegant account of the organization of biological systems and of the subsequent development of life, a development that to all appearances is quite unguided by any superior intelligence. As a theory, evolution may very well have serious problems, internal contradictions and room for refinement; at the same time, it must be admitted that the various forms of creationism on offer—everything from Biblical literalism to Intelligent Design, each with a different amount of natural selection they allow to have occurred independent of God’s miraculous interventions—have an air of desperation about them. God’s role in the history of creation seems more and more crowded out by the entirely natural processes of biological history, and the responses of many Christians seem to implicitly acknowledge this fact by challenging legitimate conclusions of science or by inserting God into dark areas of empirical inquiry.
Indeed, many philosophers and scientists now claim that neuroscience has proven or stands to prove once and for all that human beings are nothing more than evolved computers, in contrast to the Cartesian and supposedly Christian picture of mankind as a body inhabited by a soul. We are, according to a swiftly growing academic consensus, organic robots organized by the long history of evolution. Our sense of free will and all of our pretensions of uniqueness within the natural world are illusions; in a certain sense, all of our conscious experience is a substantially misleading byproduct of complex chemical and electrical reactions in the brain.
An even greater, if less widely appreciated, challenge to Christian faith has more recently sprung up from the sciences of the brain, which are beginning to show in ever greater detail just how closely our conscious experience is intertwined with our biological processes. The advance of neuroscience has demolished one of the most culturally pervasive theories of human existence: the dualism of Descartes, a philosophy which places all of our ‘internal’ emotional and intellectual experiences in an immaterial ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ utterly distinct from the body it inhabits. Cartesian dualism has over the past centuries profoundly shaped our culture’s commonsense understanding of the mind, and has become increasingly—and very incorrectly—perceived as a corollary of Christian faith and a Biblical worldview.
It looks as if Christians are left in a bewildering dilemma. On the one side we have scientific discoveries that daily seem to deliver fresh ammunition to atheistic detractors of religious belief; on the other are well publicized and politically active Christians attempting to counter this trend by using increasingly questionable theological maneuvers to deny the validity of well grounded scientific research, or even to deny the validity of human reason itself.
Unlike many theologians and atheists, Ratzinger rejects the entire question of whether or not the scientific data supports or disproves the existence of God. Empirical data is essentially ambiguous, and each side has been too hasty in attempting to interpret individual facts about the natural world in their favor. Ratzinger, rather, has argued that the ability of human beings to do scientific inquiry at all- that is, to discern truths about the structure of creation through repeatable experiment, and intellectual abstraction from single instances to general rules—testifies to the intelligible and essentially intelligent structure of matter itself. Put another way, the laws of the human mind—the abstract rules of mathematics and logic, for instance—“work” when applied to the world around us.
In his long academic career, Pope Benedict XVI has quietly engaged both sides of this troublesome debate in an attempt to demonstrate that scientific rationality, far from posing a threat to the truth of faith, actually helps to confirm it and helps to discredit the prevailing attitudes of philosophical materialism and relativism. These philosophies, Benedict argues, are not the necessary nor even a very logical mental attitude of one who grapples with the vast empirical discoveries of the natural sciences; they are rather the products of an unnecessarily truncated and essentially incomplete form of rationality; a form of secularist fundamentalism. At the same time, as a professor, a Cardinal, and Pope, Benedict has repeatedly warned against a theology that, in an attempt to insulate religious belief from the jagged edges of science and the critiques of philosophy, devalues or disregards human reason as a valid path to truth.
The certainties of mathematics are not empirical facts, discoverable somewhere outside of our own mental architecture. It is not the causal necessity of physical interactions that "causes" two plus two to equal four. Rather, it is the rules of arithmetic itself, rules found only in the structure of how we think. But without these “mental" and abstract rules we could do nothing practical; everything from particle physics to architecture rests on the certainties of mathematics, certainties confirmed only by the way our minds work. Matter lends itself to the human mind.
But if the physical world is all that exists, and if it has arisen purely from the blind interactions of mindless forces, it is not at all evident that we should be able to comprehend its component parts and underlying rules by using the mental tools of logic and mathematics. If the materialists are correct, the rules of logic and reason have arisen from and are utterly determined by the non-rational forces operating "behind the scenes" in our brains.
As many attentive philosophers and computer scientists have pointed out, computers and robots simply cannot do math or science, nor reason from antecedent to consequent. A computer reaches the conclusion that two and two make four because it is following a predetermined program that arranges its output with reference to its input. It does not understand, as we do, the logical necessity of that simple arithmetic equation; in fact, it cannot understand anything whatsoever, it can only process information according to predetermined rules.
A science of the brain, therefore, that construes human beings (and thus, neuroscientists themselves!) as nothing more than biological machines is absurd, because it undermines its own methods and claims to truth. It follows that materialism itself casts serious doubts on the validity of human rationality, and these doubts are now being pervasively expressed in the writings relativistic thinkers and in our culture at large.
Pope Benedict answers this perplexity with the suggestion that the intelligible, even rational, structure of the world as we find it (and the mysterious structure of our own conscious experience, which the totalizing theories of dualism and materialism inadequately attempt to describe) point to a cause beyond the non-rational interactions of matter and energy. The complex orderliness of the natural world points rather to its origin in intelligence, to the primacy of mind and creativity.
Andrew Law works at a Manhattan adoption agency and plans to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. He studied religion at Middlebury College and wrote his thesis on the writing of Pope Benedict XVI.