Saturday, October 28, 2017

Knowing, and being known

While waiting in a checkout line, I noticed the t-shirt of a man at the neighboring register.  Its starkly printed message was: “The great thing about science is that it is true whether you believe it or not.”  I chuckled mildly and said aloud, “the great thing about truth is that it is true whether you believe it or not.”  I realized that my mind had already gone someplace the t-shirt wearer probably did not care to follow, so I grinned affably and turned back to my cashier.
But how common it is to conflate science with truth.  That is a bridge too far, a claim that science would not make for itself.  Science is the pursuit of accurate description and prediction.  Accuracy presumes, but is distinct from, truth.  The accuracy of description is based on observation; witness how much science has been changed by modes of observation, such as the invention of the microscope and telescope.  The accuracy of prediction what is tested by experimentation, the fundamental work of empirical science.  Science is challenged when a situation or result is encountered that does not fit the prediction, and new theories must be proposed and experiments undertaken.  Science changes when tools change what we are able to observe accurately, and when our mind changes how we associate and understand our observations.
Witness, for example, how Newtonian physics worked perfectly well, for a while.  Then phenomena were observed that did not comport with Newtonian predictions, and Einstein had to come up with his theory of relativity to explain them.  One of the best explanations of this process by which science changes, and possibly advances, is Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Even if you have not read it, you probably recognize some of the concepts it introduced, such as paradigm shift.
The sad thing is that so many people think that the Church is opposed to science, that faith and reason are an either-or proposition.  The funny thing is that in many ways both practical and historical, science has been dependent upon not only generic “faith” but Christian faith and even Catholic faith in particular.  For a quick experiment, look around and see how much scientific development, not simply discovery but implementation and expansion, occurred in non-Christian societies.  Compare it to the growth and development of the West, that is, Christian civilization.
In his letter Fides et Ratio, Pope Saint John Paul II pointed out:  Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth - in a word, to know himself - so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.
To give a clue as to what about the Faith makes scientific exploration and discovery possible and even common, he ruminates: Whether we admit it or not, there comes for everyone the moment when personal existence must be anchored to a truth recognized as final, a truth which confers a certitude no longer open to doubt. 
There would be no purpose to exploration and experimentation if there were no truth, no reality, and no order.  There would be no quest for understanding and explanation if we human beings were not convinced that we possess the ability to discern and know what is authentic, accurate, and even true.  Jesus Christ is the fullness of God’s self-revelation, in which man perceives his own nature as well as the nature of “all things visible and invisible.”  From this toe-hold, we leap to observe, to question, to know, to understand, to describe, to predict, and thence, to bring about desirable results, such as air travel and nuclear medicine.
Saint john Paul goes on to reflect, One of the most significant aspects of our current situation, it should be noted, is the "crisis of meaning." Perspectives on life and the world, often of a scientific temper, have so proliferated that we face an increasing fragmentation of knowledge. This makes the search for meaning difficult and often fruitless. Indeed, still more dramatically, in this maelstrom of data and facts in which we live and which seem to comprise the very fabric of life, many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning. The array of theories which vie to give an answer, and the different ways of viewing and of interpreting the world of human life, serve only to aggravate this radical doubt, which can easily lead to skepticism, indifference or to various forms of nihilism. 
The sainted pontiff also famously believed, Jesus Christ is the answer to every human question.  Here is the remedy to skepticism, indifference, and nihilism.  The great thing about truth is that it is true whether you believe it or not.

Monsignor Smith

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