The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science

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View all copies of this ISBN edition:. Synopsis About this title Although Christians have professed the God of Israel, they have often assumed a naturalistic theism that harks back to the Greeks. About the Author : Christopher C. Behind the alternative between chance and finality, we can discern the everlasting philosophical struggle between realism and idealism.

The idea that the world of science should be the chief field for proving or denying the existence of God, or that it is the best terrain for belief and unbelief to undergo reflection, is nothing but a very narrow and limited vision. At the same time, theology cannot neglect the quest for understanding that comes from relating the discourse on the world and the discourse on God, even when this quest originates within the context of scientific knowledge. Theology is called to put such a search for unity on its correct epistemological track and acknowledge the philosophical soundness of many reflections arising from science.

Theology is also definitely better situated to recognize the true cosmological contexts of its formulations and teachings. Some of them are certainly a heritage from the past, but the history of the relationship between the discourse on nature and the discourse on God could assist theology in reexamining these contexts, and even altering them in the light of a new physical image of the world. Doing so acknowledges the role the natural sciences have in the work of theologians ; theology favors the contemporary intelligibility of its formulations, and better serves the dignity of their object.

The Epistemological Meaning of a Discourse on God. In any encounter between theology and science, it is not enough to emphasize that the question of God is of everlasting relevance.

The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science

We should also analyze what kind of discourse on God a culture mainly shaped by science and technology can deem significant cf. Gaudium et spes , 5. Indeed, any discourse on God today is critically evaluated through categories belonging to science and rationality. The success of technology has a crucial role in this respect. In fact, the notion of a Creator God, Almighty and Provident, implies His dominion over the world and its visible, material effects, that is, over those same effects which technology demands be held under its increasingly sophisticated control.

At a philosophical level the notion of God, in order to be relevant to the world of science, should include a meaningful semantic area of intelligibility that has been tested in the context of the scientific interpretation of the world and its language. Only pure reason , with its theoretical rationality nourished by the experience of the empirical sciences, brings about true knowledge.

Within the realm of pure reason, to affirm or deny something transcendent to the empirical level is impossible: The idea of God is an antinomy, since it is not a possible object of experience. According to Kantian epistemology, the notion of God would make sense only in terms of practical reason , since it would become the object of a practical postulate Ger. God is something thinkable, presumable, or can even be an object of invocation, but God is not knowable.

Nevertheless, the profound separation he posits between pure reason and practical reason prevents Kant from seeing science as a source of philosophical human questioning, connecting the world of experience to the problem of existence. Since these discourses on God refer to non-communicable assertions, which lack any objective validity and are impossible to falsify, they are deemed neither true nor false.

According to the more rigorous heritage of logical Neo-Positivism, such assertions would not make sense in any context at all , since there is no knowledge at all, except that which can be empirically verified. It seems, however, that contemporary scientific thought provides new insights in overcoming both Kantian and Neo-Positivistic visions. Contemporary science does not deny that an area of meaning and intelligibility exists, one that is also important to scientific reason, a semantic area that the scientist grasps from within his or her own research activity.

This is the semantic area that calls for a Foundation of the world, for the source of its rationality and intelligibility, for the ultimate reasons for why all things are the way they are and not otherwise. Here a logos of God becomes meaningful, one which entails sufficient guarantees of universality and meaning. I will try to illustrate this point in progressive arguments. Ludwig Wittgenstein took an important step in this direction. We cannot define it in terms of a formal language; the problem of the meaning of it all is something mystical.

The philosophical path blazed by Wittgenstein overcomes the conclusions of Kantian pure reason, because the question of meaning and openness to the inexpressible both arise from an analysis coming from within scientific knowledge, rather than from outside it. In other words, the problem is meaningful within a wider meta-logic, but it cannot be expressed. The resort to a meta-language is then a necessity arising from the very limits of language as they are acknowledged by language itself.

Just like them, Wittgenstein drew a line between what we can speak of and what we must remain silent about. The important difference is that the neo-positivists had nothing to keep silent about. Indeed, for the positivists only that which we can speak about is important in life.

Wittgenstein, on the contrary, passionately believed that what is important in human life is that which, according to his vision, must be held in silence. It is a God we still cannot speak about, something or someone we can only show. Secondly, today it is easier to acknowledge that at the base of the world of facts, and beyond the language of science, there are some metaphysical requirements implicit in scientific knowledge, which are necessary for the work of science itself.

A notion of God, here understood as the cause of being and the source of the formal specificities of all natural reality that is, as the cause for why the world is as it is, and not otherwise is prior to any scientific description of the world, through making the world intelligible.

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It is a metaphysical cause that gives reason to the world, without interfering with it. Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 6.


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To leave room for a logos of God, mystical and significant even in the context of science, is consistent with the evidence that the universe exists, and that it exists with properties science does not entirely deduce from its own methods, since it receives them and discovers them by means of induction. Furthermore, the scientist is surprised by his or her capability to dialogue with physical reality.

The perception that physical reality is a subject open to dialogue with the scientist is strong in not a few researchers. Nature is recognized as worthy of being studied and having the capacity to motivate intellectual effort because it is capable of binding to a truth and beauty existing independently from the knowing subject.


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Well, a priori, one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way. One could indeed one should expect the world to be subjected to law only to the extent that we order it through our intelligence.

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Ordering of this kind would be like the alphabetical ordering of the words of a language. Even if the axioms of the theory are proposed by man, the success of such a project presupposes a high degree of ordering of the objective world, and this could not be expected a priori. Einstein, Letter to M. For example, an explanation of some phenomenon in terms of physics presupposes the validity of the laws of physics, which are taken as given.

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But one can ask where these laws come from in the first place. One could even question the origin of the logic upon which all scientific reasoning is founded. It is, however, highly significant that such questions arise by the extension of empirical analysis, and point to a semantic area of meaning, to a logos grasped in science but which is open to a logos of God. The possibility of a discourse on God that is also meaningful for scientific rationality is witnessed to by the openings to transcendence recorded in the personal reflections of several contemporary scientists.

Science reveals, but does not preclude, access to the Absolute or to a logos grasped as a realm of intelligibility and meaning. The scientist seems to perceive all physical reality as a coherent and objective otherness, characterized by formal specificity.

Of course it is also possible for the scientist not to reach this experience. For the perception of God in scientifically known nature is the final flowering of a long search, the result of much patience and consistent engagement in response to the intelligibility of reality. What is in question here, in fact, is something that goes well beyond the ordinary scientific understanding of nature. That is why there are many scientists who compare scientific experiences to experiencing the sacred, and consider them capable of linking re-ligo and leading to the threshold of mystery cf.

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Cantore, , pp. He himself is completely convinced, but he cannot communicate the certainty. Here we encounter a vision of scientific activity that looks not only like a dialogue between the researcher and nature, but much like a dialogue between the researcher and the Absolute. The image of the Absolute as perceived by scientific rationality, and in the way it is spoken of by scientists, is of course philosophically imprecise; the image of the Absolute is often mixed with ambiguity and, frequently, with a shade of pantheism.

Epistemology here refers to an implicit metaphysics, open to reality and amenable to learning from nature and its laws. In the last analysis, to think that the influence of scientific rationality on philosophy and culture necessarily narrows down or banishes the discourse on God, does justice neither to the meaning, nor to the essence, of a true scientific mentality cf. Tanzella-Nitti, A true scientific mentality is an activity involving the whole person, capable of stirring philosophical questions, even though it does not possess adequate instruments to find an answer to them within its own methods.

Any search for this explanation calls for a notion, and for a broader area of intelligibility, that cannot be considered nonsense and therefore opens up the possibility of a meaningful discourse on God. From an historical perspective, it should be stressed that when scientists began to recognize the autonomy of the scientific method with respect to philosophy and theology, this did not imply any denial of God, a denial that neither scientists in the beginnings of modernity, nor their medieval predecessors, thought it necessary to make.

Professing a religious faith and engaging in scientific activities coexisted without clashing within the lives of nearly all researchers, at least until the end of the 19th century. The gradual estrangement of a significant part, though not the majority, of scientists from God at the end of the 19th, and during most of the 20th, century, in my opinion, is due primarily to the process of secularization that took hold of Western societies rather than to any reasons inherent in science itself. The percentage of scientists who played an institutional role in their Christian Churches, as secular members or clergy, for instance, has always been quite high.

In the Dictionary of Scientific Biographies ed. The documentation offered in the Appendix of the Dictionary edited by I. Tagliaferri and E. Gentili Scienza e Fede, I protagonisti [Novara: ] catalogues about Catholic priests and religious persons born after the 17th century whose scientific activity is deemed of international significance. In addition, in modern times, another 80 ecclesiastic mathematicians and famous researchers have given important contributions to science cf.

According to the data provided by a survey among Italian researchers cf. A similar survey in France, though on a more limited sample of people cf.

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Larson, L. Numerous interesting anthologies of texts and biographies on this subject have been published in recent decades cf. Even when they are not explicitly believers, the majority of scientists are quite open to dialogue with extra-scientific dimensions of the world and life, as people who are conscious of the cultural weight of their scientific activity. I personally think that in many cases it is a deficiency of religious formation that prevents some scientists from thoroughly integrating their faith in God or their search for Him with the knowledge coming from their studies, or from arriving at an image of God adequate to accomplishing such an integration.

In any case, interest in religion has visibly reawakened in the increasing frequency of interdisciplinary activities among science, philosophy, and theology.