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A Dissent From Praise for Particles of Faith

“The good thing about science,” a recent viral Twitter post pronounced, “is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.” Such an assertion begs qualification: what is meant by “science”? Are all scientific conclusions equally true? Is such a declaration implicitly saying other fields are not equally “true”? Dr. Stacy A. Trasancos, a Catholic writer, scientist, and teacher, navigates her way through such questions in Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science. Reflection on the intersection of faith and science as they relate to Big Bang Theory, evolution, and quantum mechanics, among others, is always welcome, and Dr. Trasancos with her impressive scientific and theological credentials is certainly up for the task. Unfortunately — and I say this with trepidation given that every review of this book I could locate offers unadulterated praise — her study is inconsistent in its approach to many of these topics, while her omissions are so blatant it fashions an uneven conversation unlikely to persuade any besides those already inclined to agree with her.

Trasancos on the Right Track

First the positive: one of the more salient themes of Trasancos’ book is the limitation of science. Science — with its focus on studies of material, quantifiable, and testable empirical data — cannot provide all the answers to life’s questions. Moreover, as man’s study of the natural world increases exponentially over time, it is demonstrably clear that man’s knowledge remains dwarfed by his ignorance and, in the author’s words, that “grand mysteries remain.”

As a result of academia’s focus on specialization, many across the physical sciences also lack the kind of extra-scientific knowledge or training to understand how science can or should fit within a broader philosophical system. Trasancos observes, “for a scientist who does not believe in God or creation, there is an additional, monumental burden: you do not even known why the truths you are striving to discover are there; you have no fundamental explanation for why you care about science…. Conducting scientific research does not instill in a person the broad knowledge traditionally associated with intellectuals…. The intellectual aspect is brief and takes a budding scientist from broadly absorbing scientific literature in a specific area of research into narrower and narrower, exceedingly specialized scientific method cycles to hypothesize and test exceedingly specific questions.” For such professionals there exists only “some unknown abyss of truth beyond science.”

For this reason Trasancos censures scientism, the belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid, and that propositions or conclusions that stem from other disciplines, such as religion or philosophy, are to be met with suspicion, if not discounted. She mourns what has become man’s “excessive faith in science or scientists.” She also targets the empiricism of David Hume and Thomas Hobbes who argue that knowledge can only be derived from sensory experience and that the scientific method is the only valid method to be employed is discerning truth. The problem with this approach is that science is itself built upon certain philosophical presuppositions that cannot be put under the scientific microscope, so to speak. Take for example the presumptions, common across all scientific fields of study, that nature operates in a rational and consistent manner, or that there is a beginning and end to time.

Furthermore, and directly related to that trending tweet, scientists’ conclusions are not necessarily true. Galileo, Copernicus, Niels Bohr, and scores of other prominent scientists have all made significant errors in their evaluation of data (and in Galileo’s case, even fabricated data to prove predetermined hypotheses!). What is needed is a fair reliance on both systems of thought. As Rev. George V. Coyne, S.J. declared, “science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wide world, a world in which both can flourish.”

Philosophy and Science?

Although Trasancos accurately evaluates the lack of “philosophical acumen” of most contemporary scientists, she never sufficiently explains to the reader what that philosophy is or what conclusions can be drawn from its application to other fields of study. For example, in her otherwise helpful chapter on the Big Bang Theory, she asserts that she has “learned what philosophy and metaphysics seek to do,” but never bothers to tell the reader. Trasancos seeks to place an important philosophical limit on the Big Bang Theory: namely, that we should be cautious in employing it to “prove” the existence of God. She then contrasts the Big Bang “proof” with philosophical proofs for God’s existence, but neglects to provide any of them! That only one of St. Thomas Aquinas’ “five ways” receives any attention by Trasancos — and this only two sentences at the end of another chapter — is a glaring omission for an author seeking to repudiate commonly promoted “scientific” proofs for God’s existence.

She also references Fr. Robert Spitzer, one of a certain steam of Catholic intellectuals who believe that modern science, in Trasancos’ words, “complements and corroborates metaphysical arguments as strong inductive proof.” She explains that Fr. Spitzer “reformulates philosophical and metaphysical proofs for the existence of an unconditioned reality and a Creator of past time.” Yet she doesn’t provide any of those proofs, despite immediately going on to disagree with Fr. Spitzer’s approach, claiming that, “severe limits should be put on drawing theological insights from science.” Confusingly, she elsewhere argues in opposition to this claim by asserting that, “one has but to marvel at the periodic table to know that a wise and intelligent God has ‘ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.’” Do we “know” God exists from our study of the natural world or not?

Moreover, over the course of the book it becomes increasingly hard to decipher what role Trasancos wants philosophy to play. She argues that Christianity was “not merely a philosophical outlook,” but a “persuasive conviction that was kept pure and protected at any price because the faithful held it as true.” Such a statement seems to suggest those who hold “merely” philosophical positions don’t also believe them to be true, or worth guarding “at any price.” Is Aristotelian philosophy not also held as true by natural law theorists, some of whom are not Christians? Did not Socrates the pagan die for the sake of truth? What of Confucian martyrs in China who willingly endured the same?

Evolution and Christianity

On to the topic for which readers will likely be most interested: evolution. “There ought to be nothing remotely troubling to our faith in considering that life emerged from elements and evolved to the present day,” Trasancos argues. “A Catholic can both explore what evolutionary science has to reveal and, simultaneously, believe in the existence of Adam and Eve.” This is an important thesis, particularly given the last century-and-a-half of often vitriolic debate between pro- and anti-evolution camps, both within Christianity and between Christianity and the secular world. In addressing the topic, Trasancos is commendably patient and systematic in providing evidence for evolution from the fields of genetics, the fossil record, comparative anatomy, the geographical distribution of plants and animals, and the entire taxonomy of living things. In sum: “scientifically, there is no other theory that comes close to explaining the diversity of life found on our planet.” She also emphasizes — citing a 1909 decision of the Pontifical Biblical Commission — that the Book of Genesis, from which the vast majority of Christian arguments against evolution have originated, must be read within its own literary, historical, and cultural context. It is not a text intended to serve as a modern scientific textbook regarding earth’s solely material origins.

Despite these strengths, Trasancos’ efforts addressing creationism and intelligent design (ID) are uneven. Indeed, the author evinces a contempt for creationism that is unlikely to win over many (and I speak as a former evangelical-cum-creationist). Rather than evaluate any of creationist’s arguments against evolution, she states matter-of-factly, “without going into detail, I will just say that to accept their conclusions, a person needs to disregard the scientific community and adhere to their teaching.” This may indeed be true, but instead of listing and evaluating arguments, Trasancos provides personal anecdotes of how creationists were “aggressive” toward her. Whether or not this is generally reflective of creationists, it is irrelevant to objectively evaluating creationism as an intellectual proposition. She claims she does this because she perceives the “moral debate” launched by creationists to do the “greatest harm.” This is a personal judgment with no evidence to substantiate it besides her own personal experiences. It’s obvious that Trasancos was deeply and negatively affected by these conversations, and it shows in her personalization of the debate. This comes through in spades when she asks creationist readers the provocatively loaded rhetorical question: “Do you care about the harm you do fellow Catholics and Christians when you wage these accusations?”

Trasancos’ treatment of ID (myself again speaking as former ID supporter) is in contrast far better, as she explains and then surgically critiques the logical flaws of the movement, such as the claim that certain features of the universe and of living things, such as the nanotechnology within cells or the irreducible complexity of biological systems, are best explained by an intelligent cause. She notes that such ID arguments create a problematic distinction in dividing nature and design, “as if nature were not designed.” From a deistic or theistic intellectual framework, is not everything “intelligibly designed?” What criteria differentiate certain things ID proponents see as intelligently designed (e.g. the bacterium’s flagellar motor) from those that aren’t (e.g. rotting wood)? If only the author had given such analytic treatment to creationist propositions.

An Incomplete Text

One of the recommendations on the book’s back cover urges prospective buyers to “give this book to an atheist friend or any Catholic curious about whether faith can stand alongside science.” Given the uneven treatment of many of the topics and the omission of any serious recourse to classical arguments for the existence of God, this seems a strange exhortation. Indeed, Trasancos cites Aquinas in arguing that supernatural faith is required to believe in God, a statement that, without the necessary context of some philosophical defense of God, would probably lead any atheist reader to simply shrug his shoulders. Others not already in agreement with her thesis will likely feel the same, compounded by a distracting style of prose that oscillates between being borderline patronizing and impenetrably discursive into details. Dr. Trasancos notes on several occasions that she is an avid experimenter in the kitchen. As much as there is to contemplate and praise in Particles of Faith, it should have cooked a bit longer.

 

 

 

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