For a change of pace, we discuss emotions and aesthetics and the sense of awe at the scale of the universe and the planet that we inhabit. Paul discusses the "billion year contacts" at his old stomping grounds in the St Francois Mountains of southeast Missouri and the lost world of the earliest visible life in the Burgess Shale. Paul and Bill close with a reflection on how the awe that we feel at comtemplating the enormous scale of space and time of the created world ought to make us better appreciate the audacity of the Christian claim that the Being who set all of this in motion...emptied Itself and became man.
Today was just one of those days where I needed a script to get through a three minute intro. I summarize the interview afterward.
Paul: "Welcome to Episode 20 of That's So Second Millennium.
"I'm Paul Giesting, a geologist, researcher, consultant, writer, and your co-host on this journey through the beautiful frontier country between science, philosophy, and religion as they stand here at the beginning of the third millennium. My opposite number is Bill Schmitt, a journalist, radio personality, and dab hand with the accordion.
"This week Bill managed to snag an interview with Father Robert Spitzer, who runs the Magis Center out on the West Coast and is the host of Father Spitzer's Universe on EWTN. He's published a number of books, which tend to have provocative titles; the one that I've read is called New Proofs for the Existence of God. That's an exciting read for anyone interested in the subject matter of this podcast, and travels through scientific and philsophical and mathematical arguments like the debate over fine tuning--whether Someone had to deliberately create the universe as it is, given how tightly constrained many physical constants seem to have had to be in order for any of the complex structures of atoms, planets, and stars to form and allow the appearance of life--and the question of whether it really makes any sense to speak of a "reverse infinity" and a universe that has always existed. Indian thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, and even Thomas Aquinas either thought that the universe has always existed or at the very least that there is no logical contradiction in saying that it could have always existed in time, even while Aristotle and Thomas asserted that the universe could not have an infinite chain of causes and needed a Prime Mover. Spitzer, in New Proofs, brings forward arguments from the philosophy of mathematics that perhaps this idea of a reverse infinity is not really logically coherent at all...a topic for one or more future podcasts.
"For today, Bill talked to Father Spitzer about the state of culture and the demographics of young people leaving the practice and even the identification of faith and citing as one reason the perceived contradiction between science and faith, initiatives to fight that, and the real absurdity of this perceived contradiction. With that I'll let Bill take it away."
Bill: Introduces our podcast and the motivations: value to filling holes in the culture, addressing the young.
Spitzer: Most recent Pew survey in 2016 comments on the high fraction of young people not just leaving the Church for a while, not just leaving a Church, but leaving faith altogether and becoming agnostic or atheistic. 49% of those leaving cite the perceived contradiction between science and religion as a key reason.
Bill: Proposes two reasons why that might be: was this gap "percolating" for a long time and just not being addressed, or is there a recent development pushing this.
Spitzer: It's both. The gap has been there for a long time [below the surface]. There are a lot of internet resources, social media outlets devoted to pushing an atheistic worldview. This feeds back into schools. Science teachers and professors that publicly espouse atheism meet audiences that are already primed that direction and certainly have no answers to contradict what they're being told.
One of his initiatives is crediblecatholic.com, where there is a bundle of resource modules presenting core arguments for the consistency of the Catholic faith and science and even arguments that discoveries in science point toward faith, not unbelief, in a Creator as the more sensible interpretation of reality. Pushing to get this curriculum into every diocese and every confirmation class and Catholic school curriculum.
Example topics: the Shroud of Turin, evidence for an intelligent Creator, near death experiences, evidence for a transphysical soul, 20th and 21st century accounts of miracles that have been thoroughly investigated with scientific methods.
Bill: The New Atheism is almost built on being shallow, on an attitude of mockery rather than on a serious analysis of evidence. This approach is the opposite: really multi-faceted.
Spitzer: Cardinal Newman talked about the "informal inference" to faith. It's not one argument; it's about twenty lines of reasoning. In our day we have if anything more of these, all the way from philosophical to scientific arguments to faith on the large scale to countless examples of miracles that have withstood thorough scrutiny by skeptical researchers. This is what the Credible Catholic approach is trying to convey.
We've tested the curriculum on beta groups of students in Austin, New York, Los Angeles and gotten remarkably high marks from these groups (97% positive / very positive, rated anonymously).
Bill: Pope Benedict foundation awards for "expanded reason" and the problems with positivism, scientism.
Spitzer: The logical contradiction at the very foundation of Vienna Circle positivism: it makes the self-contradictory claim that "the only valid knowledge is scientifically verifiable knowledge"...good luck checking that statement by scientific methods. That's a school of thought from the turn of the 20th century; we in the Church have been wrestling with it for a long time.
Reminiscence about a debate on Larry King Live with Stephen Hawking (et al.) and the claim that science had replaced philosophy...this is likewise straightforwardly impossible; science and philosophy do fundamentally different things. For that matter, so do science and mathematics.
Bill: A contradiction that I see more than ever: our culture and educational system is arguing for atheism and at the same time dumbing down our understanding of basically everything, while there is a growing s(S)ociety of Catholic Scientists...[a quick back and forth]
Spitzer: Artificial intelligence's potential is overrated when it is claimed that it can become creative in anything like a human fashion. It can't find new truths; they don't love [or will] or have any of the transcendentals. Computers are marvellous tools that, *in tandem with us*, can take us to new places we could not get without this kind of effort multiplier...
Studies on religious and non-religious affiliated groups, with the latter having much higher rates of maladaptions: suicide, substance abuse, impulsivity, depression, etc. Augustine's comment about our hearts being restless until we rest in God seems to be empirically corroborated.
Closing: CredibleCatholic.com, Notre Dame initiatives to educate high school science teachers on the interrelations between faith and science.
"So there we have it. I also want to thank Father Spitzer for taking the time to give this interview. We hope to present many more interviews as That's So Second Millennium matures and gets going. The point of the podcast has always been to get conversations started about these core issues, whether and how to be a logically coherent believer in the modern age. It's started with these conversations between Bill and I, but the point is to move outward and engage with more of you. The time is rapidly coming to expand this outreach another step or two, through social media and ordinary human interactions. Right now you can check out the Facebook page for That's So Second Millennium, and you can leave ratings and reviews on one or more of our podcast servers, Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, or Podbean."
We pick up from last week's episode with the next speaker. Kara Lamb followed Andrew Sicree; her research is about the atmosphere and climate. She mostly talked about climate, and got a ways into specifics about her research on black carbon soot in the atmosphere. She did stop to draw a parallel between Laudato Si and Pacem in Terris, that in both cases the Popes stopped to address humanity at large and not just the Church.
Juan Martin Maldacena was after her, and was presented the St. Albert Award. You don't schedule Juan Maldacena and not have him talk about his own physics research; he is famous for research on workable forms of string theory in anti-de Sitter space and some results on the shape and nature of black holes. His talk was very technical and rather hard to summarize, but an intriguing aspect of it was the recurring notion that black hole singularities and the original singularity of the Big Bang might have a lot in common.
Sunday morning after Mass Michael Dennin led off with a talk structured around a book called "The Big Picture" by somebody I think I've heard of but don't know why named Sean Carroll. In this book Carroll apparently divides reality into "poetic naturalism", where "poetic" means "stories we tell ourselves about large complicated objects" and "naturalism" means "quantum physics, which is actually reality". Dennin made four points:
- Emergence. Reality does not appear to be just quantum physics (or, I would elaborate, not even just a unified theory that somehow gets gravity and relativity united with quantum physics). There are really new laws that emerge as you go to larger, composite, varied objects...the laws of thermodynamics, entropy in particular, are an example.
- Physical reality. It's a little much to talk about "reality" so cavlierly; it ignores basically metric tons of philosophical questions people have spent centuries debating. Is physical reality basically sense data? Is it the particles we theorize to be out there to explain, ultimately, our sense data in the context of the experiments we do and the natural objects we observe? Isn't there nonphysical reality: mathematics, wavefunctions (they can't be completely physical), conscious reality / qualia? How can we be sure there aren't nonphysical "forces" acting on physical objects? In some way, don't they have to? (mathematics and logic in some way constrain reality, that's a rumination of mine while writing this)
- Free will...the Comptonesque observation that quantum physics leave room for this nonphysical soul or mind to affect the physical body
- MIracles. Dennin actually led off the talk with an exercise, asking us to define miracles, and then he went on a fairly vigorous campaign against the idea that miracles ever incorporate the violation of physical law, or at least that they require it, that that should be in the definition. I noted "Contrasting focus on God's will/purpose..." but I cannot really reconstruct what he seemed to be driving at.
Craig Lent, a professor at Notre Dame, went next and gave an interesting talk that interfaced with others. He actually seemed to conflict with Barr in that he commented early on that the "state vector," which had be be the wavefunction since it had the same Greek letter psi for its symbol, contained all the information possible to have about a system and not just one observer's (the concept Barr used). He also addresses the measurement problem, but my note broke off mid-sentence. He went on to summarize the content of Scarani's talk, that Bell inequality experiments all show that the universe is not deterministic. He then addresses the claim that while atom-scale particles show quantum indeterminism, larger stuff does not, and nerves are enough larger that the human brain must be deterministic. That's probably not true; even 10,000 atomic mass unit molecules like neural transmitters show quantum behavior in experiments. We are left again with the Arthur Compton point that while obviously physics constrains us, our brains are not deterministic machines; if our souls are not affecting them, then at the very least some of their functionality is random.
The final talk was by (Padre) Javier Sanchez-Canizares on "Mind, Decoherence, and the Copenhagen Interpretation." This again comments on many of the topics in previous talks. Unfortunately the talk seemed to paw about problems already discussed without coming to any new realizations. I cannot tell from my notes whether I learned anything about decoherence, which I was really hoping to do; I think I had to look it up afterward, and even then the answers I've found so far are not satisfying. He asked the "Wigner's friend" question that Barr mentioned about the "cut" between the observer and the system in a quantum physics observation. He also made some intriguing comments on the nature of classical physics: if quantum physics is reality, why is it so hard to get rid of classical physics terminology? We still describe things that way. A recent physicist, Zurek, comments that classical physics entities somehow embody a "survival of the fittest" (the sort of comment I start questioning for influence of the divine name of evolution). Heisenberg apparently said that classical physics terms are just unavoidably part of how humans interact with the world.
Not to be confused with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although one would understand the mistake.
Bill interviews Paul about his experience and observations at the Society of Catholic Scientists conference that took place June 8-10 at the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The SCS is a very young organization. Its first president is Stephen Barr, a physicist at the University of Delaware. Its first conference was in April 2017 in Chicago. The theme of the 2018 conference was "The Human Mind and Physicalism"--physicalism being a somewhat more precisely defined term than its synonym, materialism. (Believe it or not, some folks at the meeting thought those two elements in the title were probably incompatible.)
Paul discusses the meeting and the variety of scientists he saw and met there, including Barr, Juan Martin Maldacena (a prominent string theorist), Aaron Schurger (a neuroscientist), and more. Bill and Paul do a little digging and comment on motivations for the group, including the desire for fellowship (like the existing group, Catholic Association of Scientists and Engineers) but also to band together against the folly of the existing culture and its tired, hugely outdated idea that science and faith (certainly the Catholic faith) are logically incompatible. GK Chesterton was quite right when he commented that the quarrel between science and religion was properly left to prematurely arrogant scientists and sola scriptura fundamentalists back in the NINETEENTH century. It's the twenty-first, now, and we should get ourselves to the business of putting this to bed.
Paul elaborates on this final fact at some length, discussing the parallels between the current day and the scholastic synthesis of the thirteenth century. Odd, is it not, that in the broad sweep of history, Aristotle and his universe existing indefinitely backward in time lost out to the stories of a bunch of Hebrew peasants who thought the Prime Mover had actually created the world at a specific point...
Bill’s introductory question: Would there be a quick curriculum in basic philosophical principles, including the philosophy of science, that could discourage people from assuming that science and religion are at incompatibly opposite ends of the spectrum of “how to think about things”?
We discuss the difficulty of canning a “curriculum” or “program” to address anything, let alone a problem as nuanced as this is, before plunging ahead and taking our chances.
Paul argues that there are actually significant parallels between the religious, and specifically Christian, concepts of “mystery” and “dogma” and inescapable aspects of thinking about and doing science.
A mystery is an issue within a system of religious doctrines where it is confidently pronounced that human debate and philosophizing will never exhaust the issue and solve it completely. That is very different than saying a mystery is something to encounter and then stop thinking. It’s the opposite. It’s a promise that continued thinking and contemplation will continue, world without end.
Even the concept of dogma has analogues, especially if you broaden your horizon of scientific thinking enough to take in the observational or descriptive sciences like geology, zoology, and paleontology. In these sciences, we try to understand phenomena that we don’t have the power to replicate. We can’t run the experiment “Venus” over again, changing the parameters until we understand for certain why it came out with this thick carbon dioxide atmosphere and high surface temperature as opposed to being more like Earth or Mars or anything else. We can do experiments that help us interpret the observations we make, but we have to accept the testimony of the geologic, paleontologic, or astronomic record as it has been presented to us.
Christian dogmas boil down to testimony. We can’t run the experiments Mary or Jesus of Nazareth over again. A Catholic Christian accepts testimony that has been handed down, and if he is a thinker of any kind, he works that into his worldview.
Again, key points in this discussion we owe to Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.
Paul’s profile on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4658045-paul.
Why pick either science or religion when you can have both? We open the discussion and touch on how fields as disparate as cosmology, neuroscience, and psychology interweave with faith in fascinating ways.