I’VE LONG NOTICED that biology is an attractive field of study for people who like science, but don't understand mathematics. Likewise, physics is attractive to those who are good at math, but don’t understand philosophy.
I got a degree in physics from Caltech, which is an excellent school, but I went for four years without knowing that the world ‘physics’ is from the ancient Greek φύσις (physis) meaning “nature.” Perhaps someone may have mentioned that fact, but as Caltech was akin to trying to get a sip of water from a fire hose, I didn’t explicitly learn it until I started learning philosophy in my adulthood, after my entry into Holy Mother Church. Now, the ancients would have thought this to be a silly order of gaining knowledge — certainly, you have to learn mathematics first, then philosophy, and only after philosophy is a person really ready for professional scientific studies. Sadly, part of the reason for the change is that philosophy these days is often too terribly dry and dead: scholars point out the differences between the various philosophical systems, show how one philosopher influenced another, and so forth. It is not taught as a living and supremely important tool for living the good life. Modern philosophy shows no love for wisdom, nor does it seek out the truth.
This was Caltech’s logo when I started going there. Note the quote from the Gospel, John 8:32: “The truth shall make you free.” The passage in context has Our Lord teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem:
31 Jesus then said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,The school’s current logo omits the quote from sacred scripture, and instead adds the year of the school’s founding, 1891. I recall the controversy over the logo change: the quote was removed, and also omitted was the second hand, shown on the right, receiving the torch.
32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How can you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.
35 A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains.
36 So if a son frees you, then you will truly be free.”
[New American Bible]
Oddly enough, the removal of the hand was rather controversial. Please recall that the phrase “carrying a torch,” since it is usually is understood to be a symbol of sentimental unrequited love, has quite a different meaning from “passing on the torch,” which is symbolic of the transfer of knowledge, tradition, and responsibility from an older generation to a younger. The powers that be relented on the torch, but not on the quote.
Atheism back in those days was generally more humble than the aggressive, divisive atheism we find today. I do not recall anyone saying that they were offended by the Christian source of the quote, but instead some liberal humanities professors, supporting the change, argued from the point of view of Postmodernism, saying, like Pontius Pilate, that there is no truth. This is not a good philosophy for a school of the sciences and engineering, but sadly this philosophy is now found in public science policy, which seems more intent on the consolidation of power than on finding the truth.
Finding the truth is very difficult, but it is worthwhile, a worthy pursuit for men who truly want to be free. As mentioned, many physicists (and also mathematicians) are very good at finding the truth, but are often bad at philosophy. This is a shame. That we have today a field of inquiry called ‘physics’ is due to the work of the philosopher Aristotle, as well as due to the work of the medieval schoolmen, most specifically the philosophers Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other Dominicans and Franciscans. ‘Physics’ was the title given to one of Aristotle’s books, and his methodology, filtered and purified through the Church, led to the scientific revolution in the modern period. One of Saint Albert’s considerations was that natural science ought to properly seek out the “immanent causes” found within nature herself, and not conflate the matter with God’s will. Many religions will state that a rock drops because it is God’s direct will that it do so. Catholicism, on the other hand, teaches that the world was created by God in due order as a reflection of His goodness, justice, and wisdom. She teaches that God does not interfere with the natural created order unless a greater good comes from it. An apple will fall from a tree to the ground due to gravity, unless God wills it otherwise — and miracles of this sort are presumably rare. Science therefore can be done without recourse to religion, but science does not exist without a religious and philosophical understanding. Aristotle, although pagan, came from a school of thought that understood the existence of the Supreme Being, the Source of all that is good, just, and wise, and for this reason we understand that there is a rational order that we can investigate via science.
Besides the orthodox Catholic view of Aristotle and science, which took what is good and true in the pagan writings and rejected that which is false, there came about other schools of thought. One became skeptical of all pagan writings, and from this we got the Reformation with its general distrust or rejection of philosophy. Marxism, with its hatred of truth, also derives from this skeptical school of thought. The other school accepted too much of what was in Aristotle, including the notion of an eternal cosmos: but that became the standard understanding of many physicists in the modern era.
The belief that the inductive method is the only valid method of discovering knowledge is also derived from Aristotle, but insisting on this method alone can lead scientists far from the truth in difficult cases where science meets philosophy. But even Aristotle describes at least three methods: deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning (ever hear of this?), as well as reasoning through analogy. All of these methods are important for good science reasoning.
The book by Aristotle that comes after his book Physics is titled Metaphysics, which simply means “the things after physics.” But metaphysics is a “dirty” word to most contemporary physicists; science, they claim, stops at physics. Metaphysics, in its traditional definition (but not in the contemporary New Age use) is a perfectly respectable field of study, for it asks the questions “what exists?” and “what is it like?” Alas, when the Church largely abandoned the study of metaphysics during the 20th century, nature abhors a vacuum, and so unreliable religions filled the void. We ought to be grateful that metaphysics has again been taken up by the Church in many of her seminaries, for not only theology but the natural sciences could benefit from that study. Physicists and mathematicians ought to realize that metaphysics is a subject higher and prior to theirs. Debate about the Standard Model of physics is largely a metaphysical problem, as are discussions about the meaning of the otherwise accepted Quantum Mechanics. Contemporary physics has reached a plateau, with progress being slight these days; a rediscovery of proper metaphysics has the potential of greatly expanding the knowledge in those fields, and I think that Catholic philosophers ought to take up again the study of the philosophy of science. See the article Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit for a discussion of some controversies in current physics, where bad philosophy is explored.
One particular thing claimed is that quantum mechanics predicts that matter can be made ex nihilo out of a vacuum. The whole idea of a vacuum was hotly debated during the Middle Ages, with some claiming that the existence of such a thing is impossible, that a vacuum would be a place without the presence of God. But rather we ought to consider that space and time are also made by God, not absolute but created things, and even if space is empty, space itself gets its existence from the Creation. But Quantum Mechanics does not posit the existence of a pure void: ‘empty’ space is truly active and has its own structure and potentialities, as we ought to expect from these philosophical considerations. So the claim of quantum mechanical ex nihilo creation of matter is not to be taken seriously. The other major theory in physics, General Relativity, posits the idea that space and time are contingent and not absolute, which was something believed even by the ancient Rabbis of the Old Testament period. That Jews at one time were typically the leading mathematicians and physicists of their era should not be surprising, nor the fact that Catholics led those fields at other times, likely because they had a strong grounding in philosophy and a better understanding of the role of science.
My own studies at Caltech suffered because I did not have a grounding in philosophy — but that is par for the course in our era. I also had a poor grounding in mathematics — while I knew the advanced stuff, like the calculus, I didn’t know the extreme basics of the field, like the foundations of number theory and geometry as were discovered by the ancient Greeks. This misunderstanding leads to all sorts of mischief and poor mathematical constructs in physics; while not exactly wrong, poor mathematical ideas can be misleading, and prevent scientists from quickly seeing true underlying relationships.
I am pleased to see that Caltech now has a Cardinal Newman Center. Back in my day, many Catholic students fell away from the faith due to the lack of practice and community; although I’ve learned via Facebook that many have come back since then (I fell away from Lutheranism because of the same lack of practice and community). Let us hope that the center will help strengthen their faith, as well as help them become better scientists. The truth shall set you free.