Category Archives: Faith and Reason

Old Men and the Bible

“You don’t actually believe,” my Christian friend asked, “that Methuselah lived to be almost 970 years old, do you?  It’s been pretty much proven by biblical scholars in the last century that the ages shouldn’t be taken literally.  I had no idea you were a biblical literalist.”  Intrigued by the fact that it was “proven,” I asked what the proofs were.  He said there were two—those such that hold it to be a myth or literary device to speed up the story from Adam to the Flood and those who say the ancients reckoned the years differently, something akin to what we do with “dog years.”

These are not new questions to be sure.  In City of God, St. Augustine set out to defend the truth that we should interpret the ages of the Biblical Fathers literally.  Even in Augustine’s day there were those who tried the “dog-years” interpretation saying that the authors of Sacred Scripture reckoned years differently, 10 years for every actual year.  He refutes it by pointing out that if the calendar was “sped-up” then a year would last 36 days, with each month lasting 3 days.  The problem with this however is that there are very specific references to months and days in the text.  We are told that the waters began to recede “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month” (Gn 8:4).  Later we learn that Noah left the ark on the twenty-seventh day of the second month (Gn 8:14).  Between the two months there were at least 44 days, making the “dog-years” hypothesis untenable.  We can conclude with Augustine and all those who followed him that “[I]t is plain that the day then was what it now is, a space of four-and-twenty hours, determined by the lapse of day and night; the month then equal to the month now, which is defined by the rise and completion of one moon; the year then equal to the year now, which is completed by twelve lunar months, with the addition of five days and a fourth to adjust it with the course of the sun” (City of God, Book 15, Ch.14).

Likewise the “literary device” hypothesis is difficult to defend.  There is a genealogy that connects each of the persons listed directly.  Anyone who has attempted to trace their own genealogy knows that the two most important things are getting the years of birth and death correct and matching the child with the right parents.  So unless you are willing to concede that the people listed themselves were not real people, then you will have difficulty connecting the men and women listed except by accepting the time frame as well.  There is no reason that the Sacred Author would need to employ this as a literary device when it would be just as effective to summarize across generation the way it is done at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

The Problem of Methuselah

All that being said, we still have not overcome what I will call the “wink-wink” aspect.  According to the Guinness Book of World records, the “greatest fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122.”  That Methuselah lived to be 969 years old flies in the face of both experience, common sense and modern genetics.  Ironically enough, though, if we are willing to accept Divine Revelation as true (i.e. a literal interpretation of the ages) then we can use some of the principles of genetic mutations to offer a reasonable explanation.

In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we discussed how faith and reason intersect to offer an explanation of our beginnings from a single man and a single woman whom Tradition calls Adam and Eve.  Being the first of their kind they would necessarily represent humanity in its “purest” form.  That is, as the first human beings, they would be setting the genetic standard for what it means to be human.  Any so-called mutations in a creature that is the first of its kind represents not a mutation but a part of the baseline so to speak.  Mutations could only begin to occur in the second generation.  But these mutations (I am oversimplifying here to make a point) would not begin to express themselves in offspring until there was a “doubling” in that both parents had the mutation and passed it along to their offspring.  Given that the appearance of these mutations occur in random subjects, probability theory would suggest that it would take a long time for this doubling to occur, even if the population size is increasing exponentially.

At a certain point in time, a “shorter life” gene could have entered the gene pool and through a process of micro-evolution (especially if it was selective for another reason) became the more prominent.  Human beings had “evolved” such that they now lived for 80 years instead of 800.  The vegans among us might be quick to point out that everything was fine until they started eating meat (Gn 9:3), but I digress.  The point is that modern science can offer us a possible explanation as to how it happened.  It could have happened another way.  But, happen it did.  This is not a proof, but an explanation.  Revelation is a given.

Why Faith Needs These Questions and Answers

While this may be an interesting intellectual exercise that shows the overlap between faith and reason, that is not the point of this essay.  It is simply an example.  We should not be surprised that we cannot prove many things contained with divine revelation, especially those related to our pre-historic, that is those that happened before historical record, beginnings.  If we could discover them then we would not need revelation.  As Christians, we start with the Bible as a given and then proceed from there.  Like our friend St. Augustine, we believe and then understand.

We might treat these things as “acceptable fictions” that make for a nice story or simply look the other way, feeling a little absurd when they come up.  Both practices are ultimately damaging to our faith.  Which is more unbelievable—that men once lived hundreds of years or that God Himself took flesh, walked the face of the earth as one of us, suffered, died, was buried and on the third day rose again?  By examining revelation using other avenues of truth it not only strengthens our faith, but more importantly, it increases our awe at the most wonder-full truth of the Incarnation.  An incarnational religion ought to be animated by a desire to put flesh on the truths of the faith by scrutinizing them using the tools of reason.  Armed with the maxim that truth cannot contradict truth, the assurance that everything given to us through the fonts of Revelation is true, and a healthy dose of humility, we should not fear to use reason to challenge what we believe.  Questioning the truths of the Faith is not the same thing as questioning whether they are true.  The death of faith can come from at the hands of credulity just as easily as it can in the face of methodical doubt.  The Christian story is quite incredible and we should treat it as such.  Apologetics helps the apologizer just as much as his audience; be not afraid to shine the light of reason onto divine revelation.

Where’s the Conflict?

In the first of the thirty-two correspondences between a junior tempter and his devilish uncle Screwtape “discovered” by CS Lewis, the latter cautions his nephew Wormwood not to “use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see.”  Yet, to most people science is a great enemy of Christianity.  It seems that Satan has taken the exact opposite approach to Lewis’ discovery by using what is seen to debunk what is unseen.  But he always operates under illusions and half-truths, especially when it comes any supposed conflict between science and religion.  The two can never conflict even if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions…[because] we know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth” (St. John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996).

In addressing why any conflict is not real and only apparent, we must begin by recognizing the dependence that science has on faith.  All of science rests upon two fundamental assumptions.  Like most first principles they cannot be proven, but instead require faith on the part of the person.  The scientist is no different in this regard because he believes first of all that the world itself is intelligible.  It is the assumption that there is a law behind what is being studied that drives us to discover the law.  No reasonable person would set out to discover something that he believed was truly random in the statistical (as opposed to the scientific) sense.  This leads to the second point, namely that the scientist assumes that the human mind has the power to accurately grasp that which he is seeking to discover.  Intelligibility requires intelligence to measure it.  Every scientist bases assumes his instruments can provide accurate measurements and depends on this.  The mind, as the instrument of the scientist, too must have the capacity to grasp reality.  Both are necessary for science and both must be taken on faith.  As Chesterton says, the “Materialist cannot explain why anything should go right, even observation and deduction.  Why good logic should not be as misleading as bad logic, if they are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.”

What does the faith of the scientist have to do with religion?  The intelligibility of the universe is a religious assumption because it necessitates an Intelligence behind it.  In other words, it requires a God, and not just any kind of God, but the Judeo-Christian God.  Only He is a God of reason or Logos.  Historically speaking it was no accident that modern science arose when it did—in the midst of a Christian culture. In fact, it is certain Christian fundamental ideas that allowed the emergence of scientific thought to begin with.  The study of science arose because of a belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with orderly physical laws.  Scholasticism was responsible for the rejection of the pantheistic approach to nature.  Christian belief debunked the idea that created things have a mind of their own and but instead followed fixed physical laws.   In fact, the pioneers of modern science, such as Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton thought that by pointing out the wonders of creation they would lead people to the praise of the Creator of those wonders.

Gregor Mendel

Why is it then that scientists are often the ones leading the way of the New Atheist movement?  Chesterton hinted at the answer in his quote regarding the Materialist, but it is because they use science as a smokescreen for their philosophy.  While Science and Christianity cannot conflict, Christianity and Scientific Materialism are natural enemies.  The Materialist believes all reality is only matter (or at least ultimately derived from matter).  It is easy to prove that this philosophy is true when you assume it to be true.  Not surprisingly, when you use instruments that are designed to measure matter to measure the immaterial, you will never find them.  It is like walking around with a calculator looking for a cell-phone signal and denying its existence to the people talking on their phones.

In many ways modern scientific materialism is no different than ancient paganism.  The pagans saw the supernatural everywhere.  Things were gods or the playthings of the gods moving at the whim of the gods.  The Judeo-Christian religion demolished all such superstition.  The two Creation accounts in Genesis are mainly written to debunk the superstition of the Babylonians by showing that their gods were actually made by the True God and in fact were not gods at all.  So it is ironic that the materialist now comes along and accuses the Christians of superstition by debunking the Creation accounts.  The materialist sees his mission as one of freeing mankind from superstition.

But superstition by definition is an irrational or unfounded belief.  The reason why Christianity was able to free the pagans from superstition was because it is a religion that is reasonable and with a belief in the natural world.  Christians may believe in the miraculous, but they view it as a supernatural act.  In other words, the miracles of the Christian faith rest upon the natural world.  You cannot have the supernatural without the natural.  It is precisely the understanding that men naturally die that allows us to see the Resurrection for what it is.  The very foundation of Christianity is rooted in an unwavering belief in intelligibility and predictability of the natural world.

This is why the First Vatican Council in its first canon said ““If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.”  In other words it is an article of faith that you don’t need faith to believe in God.  To believe in God is the most reasonable thing one can conclude based on the intelligibility of the universe.

It is not without irony then that the Materialist accuses Christians of superstitions when in fact it is they who are superstitious.  For their claim is most certainly not a scientific but a religious one.     What they actually believe is irrational.  They are just as superstitious as the most superstitious of the ancient pagans.  As Stephen Barr has pointed out, the ancient pagan thought that his actions were controlled by the orbits of the planets while the materialist says they are controlled by the orbits of electrons in his brain.  Rather than speaking of fate like the pagan, he speaks of determinism.

In the nearly three centuries since the rise of modern science, mankind has learned more about the workings of the universe than in all the previous centuries combined.  We know more about how things work with each day.  This ought to lead us to deeper wonder and awe and we learn more about the Designer Who made all things to reveal Himself to us.  This is why Screwtape was so vehement with Wormwood about staying away from true science.  But once philosophy is masquerading as science, we run the risk of it drawing people from God in a way that Lewis’ characters would have reveled in .

Evolution and the Church

In a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, Pope St. John Paul II said “the Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God.”  Rather than dismissing evolution as somehow anti-Christian, the Pontiff embraced it as “more than an hypothesis.”  To be clear, the Holy Father never actually endorsed a specific theory of evolution, but instead says it is “more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution” because many of the so-called theories of evolution are wrong because they rest on a flawed metaphysical system.  This shows how the two areas, philosophical and scientific, must remain in dialogue with each other if we are to find the truth about man’s origins.  If the scientific community will turn its evolutionary glance towards the most highly evolved Ox, St. Thomas Aquinas, then he can point them only in the direction of those theories that rest on a firm metaphysical foundation.

Mostly as a matter of polemics, there is a false dichotomy that is often set up between creation and evolution.  But the two need not be mutually exclusive.  All too often a belief in creation is often lumped together with what is commonly referred to in Christian fundamentalist circles as “creationism.”  Creationism starts with the view that the six days of creation are meant to be taken literally and then posits that the earth is about six thousand years old.  Of course when science examines the question of the age of the earth, it comes up with a much larger number.  Since “truth cannot contradict truth” it is the scientific that wins out because it seems to be more in line with human reason.  What starts out as a defense of the Christian faith ends up making it look absurd.  St. Thomas warns about attempting to invoke arguments like these for “the Christian faith that are ridiculous because they are in obvious contradiction to reason” and only serve to provoke the irrisio infedelium, the mockery of unbelievers.

Along the same lines, a second dichotomy is set up in that creation means that the Creator had to make the world perfect.  If it is not perfect, then it must be one based solely on chance.  St. Thomas would reject both viewpoints.  In response to the latter, St. Thomas himself addressed the question as to whether chance could govern the world. St. Thomas countered the neo-Darwinists’ of his time called the “atomists” who saw the variety in the world as the result of a random interplay of matter by arguing that variety is precisely the intention of the Creator.  God “brought forth many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided” (ST, I, q.47 a.1).  In fact, if the purpose of creation is to show forth the Creator, then this diversity would be exactly as one would expect.  Just as no work of art can express or exhaust everything an artist has to say because it is always limited by its material framework, likewise no creature can entirely express the Creator.

In response to those who say the existence of a Creator necessitates that the world be perfect, St. Thomas would say that the world, because it is not an end in itself, is actually is a state of becoming, rather than already perfected.  In fact while St. Thomas affirms the goodness of everything that exists (this is called ontological goodness), this does not imply that everything is the best that it can possibly be.  In fact he even says that God could have created a better world (ST I, q.25, a.6, ad.1).  While the world may be journeying towards its ultimate purpose, it is not yet there.

Meet your relatives

It is the philosophical underpinnings of the response to this false dichotomy that gives us a Thomistic launching pad for philosophically valid theories of evolution.  The idea that each goodness is “manifold and divided” and each creature is limited is expressed by St. Thomas in his distinction between essence and existence.  What Aquinas teaches is that everything that exists (while allowing for a possible exception) is constituted by an inner structure of two metaphysical principles.  The first is the act of existence by which the thing is present is the universe of real things.  The second is the manner in which its existence is limited and that is its essence or type of thing.  Think of existence having two dimensions.  The vertical dimension is like a ladder in that the variety of things each have an increasing “amount of existence” that is determined by how much being its particular nature can hold.  There is also a horizontal dimension in which things can share the same nature or essential form and be multiplied because of matter.  Just as essence limits existence, so too matter limits the number of individuals.  So while two rose plants are identical in nature (and therefore being), they do not have the same level of being as say a bear.

Philosophically, St. Thomas would say that there is a dynamic principle that governs the change by relying on the Aristotelian notion of act and potency.  As things change, there must be a principle of continuity that acts as a means for the thing to receive a new mode of being.  This aptitude is its potency or potentiality.  Potency can be either passive which is the capacity to receive some actual perfection from without or active which is the capacity to act from within.  Creatures in essence shape themselves.  They have an active potency or inner force that is governed by their nature that shapes what they become.

It is also necessary to include as foundational the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  The principle of causality, as it is commonly referred to, states that every being that lacks the sufficient reason for its own existence in itself must have an adequate efficient cause. It seems then that the central metaphysical problem related to evolution is how to explain it without violating the Principle of Sufficient Reason, specifically the causal axiom that “no effect can be greater than its cause.”  Drawing upon what was said above about active potencies as the ability to act by some inner power, we can say that two beings already in existing in nature may have the active potentiality to combine with each other under certain conditions to form a new being.  For example, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, both of which are flammable, combine to form a water molecule which has the opposite property of putting fires out.  This viewpoint may explain evolution in the pre-biological dimension of our world in which all change may be a change in degree.  However this theory cannot explain those changes that require a step up the ladder of being without violating the principle of sufficient reason.

One final principle that needs to be articulated is the distinction between differences in degree and differences in kind.  A difference in kind refers to the fact that there could not possibly an intermediary between the two (called the law of the excluded middle) while a difference in degree admits this possibility.  Two things differ in kind if one possesses a characteristic totally lacked by the other or if one can do something that the other cannot while a difference in degree is a characteristic that one has more of it and the other less.

Any solution to the question of evolution would need to conform to the principle of sufficient reason.  This means that it must present creation as containing some points of discontinuities and cannot be a wholly continuous process that has been set in motion.  Non-living creation shares in existence to a lesser extent than creation that has life.  There is a further division within the realm of living beings.  All living beings have a soul, but they are different in kind and not just degree. These kinds of souls, delineated as vegetative, sensitive and rational, serve as animating principles for living beings.  All living things have vegetative powers in their souls, but only plants have a vegetative soul.  Likewise both man and the animals have sensitive powers in their soul, but only animals have a sensitive soul.  Only man, with reason and will, has a rational soul.  It seems natural to posit that the points of discontinuity would be reflective of these distinctions.  A Thomistic theory of evolution then could be developed by dividing the problem into four distinct areas.

The first would be evolution in the non-living universe from the beginning to the formation of the earth.  In order to satisfy the principle of sufficient reason all that seems to be needed is the infusion of a range of active potentialities (even if they are somehow dormant) in the universe.  This integration would require an Organizing Intelligence but would not require any further special intervention of the Creator (although there is room for such an intervention in theory).

Secondly we could speak of the evolution of plant life.  The principle of sufficient reason requires that an outside source of causality would be needed to move up the ladder of being from non-living to living.  The matter in the plants may have the passive potentiality to receive life, but that life would need to be supplied from an outside source.

Next we could speak of evolution of subhuman animals.  The presence of the sensitive powers must indicate a difference in kind because between the presence of these powers and the lack there are no intermediaries possible.  Therefore this suggests that there is a new level of being here as well.

It should be mentioned that the idea of microevolution within species presents no special philosophical problem because they could be the result of accidental changes with the same nature that produces beings that have only a difference in degree.  Many scientists such as Francis Collins have said that these accidental changes could be brought about by an active potentiality that consists in gene jumping in response to a given environment.  This may in fact become so cumulative that the later entities are no longer able to breed with the earlier and thus a new species is judged.  This however does not imply a qualitatively new level of being.

Finally, we come to the final step and that is the “evolution” of man.  Once again we find that man represents a jump up the ladder of being through the spirituality of the human soul.  The ability to form abstractions is attributed to man along with propositional speech, tool making for future use, and cumulative culture all mark a transcendence of the immediate environment.  These non-material powers cannot be explained by the combination of material causes and in fact would need the intervention of some outside non-material cause.

Notice that throughout the discussion we did not rely on Divine Revelation at all.  This is not because Divine Revelation has nothing useful to say or that we should ignore it.  It was simply beyond the scope of what was being proposed.  Science, philosophy and Divine Revelation are all reliable sources of knowledge and in an ideal world all three should be working in unison to come up with a unified vision of man’s origin.  This essay simply took a bottom up approach that would require no faith on the part of the scientist.  Followed properly, any reasonable person would begin to ask what (or Who) this non-material source might be.  In a future essay we will add the guidelines imposed by Divine Revelation to complete the full picture.