Faith, science and epistemology
From subjection to emancipation
In relation to religion, the history of science is essentially that of the passage from subjection to emancipation.
In 391, Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire. By banning "pagan" cults, he established a widespread and institutionalised intolerance to which the ecclesiastical authorities adhered. For example, in 393, he had the Olympic Games banned because they were considered too pagan.
The authoritarian attitude of the Church is based on the doctrine of the "just persecution" of St. Augustine (354 - 430):
"If we want to be true, then let us say that the persecution of the ungodly against the Church of Christ is unjust, whereas there is justice in the persecution of the ungodly by the Church of Jesus Christ. (...) The Church persecutes in order to remove error, the ungodly in order to precipitate it. Finally, the Church persecutes her enemies and pursues them until she has reached and defeated them in their pride and vanity, in order to make them enjoy the benefit of the truth; the ungodly persecute by returning evil for good, and while we have only their eternal salvation in view, they seek to take away our portion of happiness on earth. They breathe so much murder that they take their own lives, when they cannot take the lives of others. The Church, in her charity, works to deliver them from perdition in order to preserve them from death; they, in their rage, seek every means of destroying us, and to satisfy their need for cruelty they kill themselves, as if not to lose the right they believe they have to kill men".
[Letter 185 from Augustine to Boniface, military prefect in charge of the repression of the Donatists]. The Christian lobby had this excerpt removed from Wikipedia.
The hunt for heretics is open. It lasted about 1,400 years.
In 1233, Pope Gregory IX entrusted the court of exception "Inquisitio hereticae pravitatis" with the task of unmasking and condemning heretics and insincere Catholics. The Inquisition will immediately show brutality in the repression of the Cathars.
In the 13th century, in his work of synthesis bringing together Aristotle's philosophy and Catholic theology, Saint Thomas Aquinas gave the West the benefit of the sciences of Greek Antiquity. Unfortunately, his doctrine was fixed in the official teaching of the Church. All scientific work could only be done within this strict framework. Theology being the queen of sciences, the natural sciences were at its service.
The church authorities carefully monitored all publications. By a bull promulgated in 1501, Pope Alexander VI forbade the printing of works without permission or prior examination throughout Christendom, on pain of excommunication. Authors, printers, peddlers and readers are all punishable. Thus, in 1545, a simple reader, Lazare Drilhon, apothecary in Toulon, was burnt at the stake for having hidden thirty Protestant-inspired works in a chest. But lighter sentences could be pronounced for less serious faults: split nose, severed hands, sliced ears, pillory, galleys, gallows, etc....
Paul IV, who became pope after leading the Roman Inquisition, instituted the "Index librorum prohibitorum", i.e. the list of prohibited books, in 1559. In the aftermath, Giordano Bruno was burned alive in 1600 for claiming that every star is a sun surrounded by planets in an infinite universe. And Galileo's trial is not an anecdote, but an inevitable consequence of a totalitarian system.
From the 17th century onwards, as the virulence of the Inquisition diminished, the sciences emancipated themselves from the Church and from Aristotelian "knowledge". They became autonomous, which allowed them to develop as we know them.
In universities, science faculties were subordinate to theology faculties. One of the first science faculties to achieve equal status with the theological faculty was that of Göttingen, in 1737, thanks to the spirit of the Enlightenment endorsed by George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover.
In 1759, Pope Clement XIII published the encyclical "Damnatio, et prohibito" which put the Encyclopaedia by Diderot and d'Alembert on the Index. Religion condemns scientific knowledge because it threatens faith.
By separating itself from the natural sciences, Thomism was revived in the 19th century in the form of neo-Thomism. Even today, it is still part of the official teaching of the Vatican. Congenitally deprived of a principle of revision, it is frozen in sclerosis.
If the sciences have finally freed themselves from the centuries old tutelage of the Church, the same cannot be said of philosophy. Some philosophers are privileged. While scientists have to make great efforts to obtain bits of truth, neo-thomists can boast that they have direct access to absolute truth, but only if they remain chained to the Vatican's directives.
After more than three centuries of divorce, faith and science are compatible, but only insofar as they deal with disjointed areas. The profound antinomy between them is justified by completely different value systems and criteria of truth.
While religion is still rehashing ancestral myths and only slowly and reluctantly evolving under the pressure of social transformations, science is rapidly advancing our knowledge of nature. The apparent stability of religions is perhaps reassuring.
That Isaac Newton was simultaneously an ardent alchemist and the father of classical physics shows that the production of a work meeting the criteria of modern science does not imply that the mind of its author is entirely rational. More generally, among many scientists, religious feelings and rational science coexist in the most diverse ways, sometimes at the cost of a certain dissociative identity disorder.
The explanatory fields
«Miraculous healings prove that men prefer lies that make them feel secure to truths that worry them.»
Michel Onfray, Haute École
Causes are traditionally classified as supernatural or natural, which is expressed by divergent behaviours. A supernatural explanation refers to religious practices such as prayers, pilgrimages and offerings, the outcome of which is left to chance. On the other hand, natural explanation is part of the development of knowledge and techniques that lead to effective capacities for action on reality.
Two visions of the world confront each other:
In other words, the decisive question is that of the attitude in front of a mystery:
It is unsatisfactory for the mind to believe that what we perceive through scientific knowledge is not representative of what exists. I find it hard to believe in deities who would react to rituals like activating a machine by pressing a switch. On the other hand, I find it a pity that the offer of supernatural services is so narrow: there are no cancer healers, and so many human needs are not covered! Would the gods be stingy?
In the days when all illness was treated with bloodletting or enemas, it was better to call a priest rather than a doctor to the bedside, but times have changed. Since a disease can be prevented by vaccination or cured by an antibiotic, it is neither a fatality nor a divine punishment. Since one of the functions of religion is to protect us from misfortune, medical progress and the development of insurance companies are two reasons why religious needs are declining.
Some images are detrimental to a healthy understanding of our universe. Such is the case of the Great Architect who is imagined drawing up a Plan that contains all the details of the future without leaving anything to chance, sets all the destinies, and controls the course of the history of the universe in order to reach the Final Cause fixed from all eternity. With such conceptions it is impossible to understand the spirit of current science.
According to Karl Popper, while the characteristic feature of science is not to seek the truth, but to flush out error, the specificity of religion is to declare a truth that lies outside the experimental field and which, therefore, can neither be invalidated nor given credit.
According to proven observations, nature evolves by trial and error, without any pre-established plan, by taking advantage of opportunities, without intentionality and without purpose. Science explains the history of the universe, the earth, life and mankind by laws in which chance is able to create, select and orient. Chance is a scientific necessity. Unfortunately, despite cultural progress, our brain has remained prehistoric and has a natural penchant for anthropomorphic explanations. It is difficult to admit that the future is not written anywhere and that we are not determined by destiny. Man's freedom bears the full weight of his responsibility.
Belief serves to ward off the fear of chance and to introduce into nature an intentionality, reassuring for the feelings but disturbing for the reason: "We don't have control over events, but there is someone who does. We can influence our future through prayer". Since observation of the effects is not conclusive, it is enough to pretend that they will unfold in the afterlife.
To believe that misunderstood phenomena are of divine origin is an archaic attitude. For example, volcanoes, lightning, eclipses and the passage of a comet were, in ancient times, divine manifestations.
It is estimated that a pharaoh had to devote 30 % of his time to rituals in favour of the gods. In spite of the debauchery of the means used, I bet the effectiveness of their "magical power" is questionable. In all likelihood, the priests of today's religions are no better than those of antiquity in terms of the results obtained.
At a given time and in a social environment where people believe in phantoms, it is easy to find people who will testify to having seen phantoms. The same goes for ghosts, werewolves, demons, angels, yetis, UFOs, aliens and other ectoplasms. Such testimonies are useful to shed light, not on the hidden riches of nature, but on the sometimes aberrant functioning of the human mind.
Before Pasteur, the incessant renewal of animalcules was explained by spontaneous generation. For example, the maggots appearing "spontaneously" in the meat, we saw "by evidence" a plethora of divine creations. Today they are natural phenomena. Epidemics - plague, cholera, leprosy, syphilis, etc. - have changed in nature: once unstoppable divine plagues, that is to say punishments, they have become microbial infections to be fought, often successfully.
Isn't it curious that one can protect oneself from the divine wrath by simple hygiene measures, which would place God and pathogenic bacteria in the same category of dangers? As the AIDS pandemic has shown, however, belief in divine curses, which would only deserve laughter, is taken seriously by believers. Worse still, it is exploited to stigmatise certain categories of "sinners" and remains a boon to missionary activity.
We can postulate that the rare observations that might seem miraculous today will be natural phenomena tomorrow. Thus God, in the past more active than Hercules, has been driven out of the field of admissible explanations and now finds himself in partial unemployment.
It is in the interest of the powerful and the rich to make it look as though events are taking place under the influence of divine interventions. They can thus place their privileges under the protection of God. Providence consecrates those who have succeeded; the losers will find consolation in another world. This is an excellent doctrine to defend the established order. It is easy to understand why those in power are usually ardent defenders of religion. See Authority: the parable of the magic pact.
If man has been able to reduce the scale of certain calamities, such as diseases, it is certainly not thanks to prayers or religious ceremonies, but to the development of science and technology. Anyone who refuses to explain illness by natural causes will easily find a thousand other explanations. However, if misfortune is a heavenly punishment for evil deeds, why are the rich less exposed than the poor? And why does it also affect innocent children? The blind way in which misfortune strikes, unrelated to merit, cannot be a matter of divine justice; See Is God good or paradoxical? 1
To see the supernatural in a natural phenomenon, for example in a birth, is to strip nature of its richness and depth and to transpose the intangible into fantasies. If everything that is unexplained were to be supernatural, we would benefit from an inexhaustible palette of universal explanations, a sort of pharmacy full of panaceas of thought. Explaining the existence of something - universe, life, human being - by a divine creation only takes us a tiny step forward, because the problem of God's existence is still inexplicable. Moreover, this explanation is very short and poor; we have the impression that we have said everything, but learnt nothing. God and his mysteries do not make the world more intelligible. Recourse to the mysteries is the expedient of the one who is short of arguments. If the world is a whim of the gods, there is nothing to understand; all that remains is to submit and pray.
At the heart of the believers' reasoning are arguments that proceed from the following model: "Since science is incapable of explaining the origin of life, it is that it was created by God". Following the same pattern, we can imagine ancient Greeks thinking: "Since no natural physical phenomenon can explain lightning, it necessarily comes from a personal and voluntary intervention of Zeus". In order to avoid admitting that he is ignorant, the human being follows the leaders who have opinions on everything, and the most inspired are the priests. Faith allows doctrine to be fixed in such a way that any questioning becomes useless.
Indeed, many things are unexplained and, at present, inexplicable. But, that our ignorance serves to justify belief in God is an argument that is inadmissible, because it is based on a vacuum.
One can rightly be wary of those who know so well what God wants. Thus, after the earthquake in Lima in 1746, the Viceroy of Spain decreed the appropriate penance: women's skirts had to be lengthened in order to fight against the true cause of divine punishment: lustful thoughts.
Does God personally intervene each time an egg is fertilised to breathe life into it or to create an immortal soul? Do people who suffer from dissociative identity disorder, with two consciences, have two souls or two half-souls? Creationists deny evolution and call for an act of the Creator for each species. If God is free and acts in impenetrable ways, then nature is essentially incomprehensible; divine action blurs natural laws and impedes knowledge of reality. Imagine for a moment that prayers were answered; then all medical experiments on the effectiveness of medicines would be distorted!
During the famine of 1788, perceived as a manifestation of heavenly wrath, religious ceremonies and processions, if possible with relics of Saints, were multiplied to obtain divine graces. Prayer confirms fatality and encourages resignation 2. On the other hand, in 1815, France alleviated the famine by importing wheat from Russia.
2 “Thy Will Be Done, O Lord”
To justify the existence of God, the following argument is often used: "So much natural beauty and so much complexity can only be the product of supernatural intelligence". By removing the rhetorical aspects of the formula in order to extract the mechanism from it, the argument becomes : "If we don't understand it, it's because God did it." This is probably why ignorant people have the most unshakeable faith. If we want to encourage the understanding of nature through the development of science - when God is the measure of the ignorance of the laws of nature - it becomes desirable to avoid faith in an explanatory God.
Of course there are miracles: they appear everywhere in advertising slogans, for example: "Lose 20 kg in 2 weeks, effortlessly". That such claims can be taken seriously shows that the human brain accepts fables that please it. Religious beliefs are mounted on the same mechanism.
Since science exists only because God is silent, it bears witness to the absence of divine goodwill. Since the Trinity is a mystery, the Incarnation is a mystery, the existence of hell is a mystery, the existence of evil is a mystery, the explanatory power of Catholicism is derisory. The belief that "confused, esoteric, hermetic, symbolic thought is richer and more lovable than clear thinking" keeps its supporters in a dreamlike, subjective, obscurantist world, unrelated to reality.
On the contrary, a rationalist hopes that God, if he exists, will reduce his role to that of spectator. Since "miracles" are rare and unproven, the observation of the world is compatible with this hypothesis. While the religious posture denies chance and replaces it with divine design, the sciences have driven out the final causes from their explanations; but the believer imagines God manipulating the chance of nature. A God who acts only through the laws of nature is useless, since prayers, cults and offerings do not influence the course of events. The appeal to an external force that has no effect on the functioning of the system shows that the scriptwriter is bad and resorts to the expedient of Deus ex machina. In short, faith and science are compatible, because the Creator remains invisible and is forgotten.
However, love of truth and love of faith are generally incompatible. The former teaches mistrust of appearances and unfounded assertions, while the latter cultivates trust in the tradition that cements the sense of belonging to a community. It follows that truth must set faith aside, and that faith cares little for objective truth.
By attributing to the pre-Christian gods a gigantic, but not infinite power, as well as flaws, the peoples of the Antiquity were more attuned to the world as it presents itself to us and possessed a philosophical awareness less unrealistic than many of our contemporaries.
Since faith does not clarify the mysteries we face, it is better to leave the question open to scientific curiosity. Instead of remaining fixed in "absolute truth", knowledge, even modest, is attested and can be enriched to become more relevant.
In short, since we can understand the workings of the universe without divine intervention, God's explanatory role is not of great interest. Contrary to the religious attitude, which offers only a hollow and sterile paradigm, scientific openness is a fertile ground whose developments are prodigious.
Science teaches us to formulate hypotheses, test them and reject all those that are inconsistent or do not agree with the facts or are not necessary, thus eliminating religious beliefs.
From the previous developments, I retain the following postulates:
Epistemology: some objections of a physicist to neo-thomism
The 19th century was the century of triumphant science. It was then common to think that the enterprise of science was coming to an end, that everything real was scientifically explainable. There were still a few gaps, but they would be filled over time. It later turned out that these were not simple gaps, but difficulties so serious that the whole of physics had to be reconstructed. Thus, in the 20th century, relativistic and quantum physics were born.
On this occasion, the most fundamental concepts were questioned. We can speak of a real intellectual revolution that forces us to break away from traditional ways of thinking. Any philosophical system that did not take these new elements into account would disqualify itself.
To fully appreciate what follows, let us recall that, in philosophical matters, the Catholic is "free", but only insofar as he remains linked to neo-thomism.
On the distinction between deep thinking and high thinking
By etymology, deep and high thoughts are antagonistic:
It is obvious that the more numerous the hypotheses and the higher the edifice, the more questionable and fragile the thought is.
On the inadequacy of common sense and evidence
The way of conceiving time, space and matter - in the ordinary or classical sense - is well adapted to the macroscopic world in which man evolves. On the other hand, it proves inadequate for the physicist who hunts down elementary particles. Although the mathematics of quantum mechanics allows us to describe the real world very precisely on a subatomic scale, it is (currently?) impossible to intuitively represent phenomena, because the usual macroscopic concepts (such as "particle", "wave", etc.) are inappropriate. The functioning of the universe escapes spontaneous understanding.
The world is too complex to be directly understood by intuition. Many of the laws of physics are far removed from common sense. Few people understand the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. The laws of nature are far from obvious. True objectivity is not possible. In any experiment, the fact that the observer is a man plays an irreducible role. This difficulty is overcome by the notion of inter-subjectivity.
The physicist can rely on experience. How does neo-thomism guard against the inadequacies of common sense, intuition and evidence?
On the hypothetical nature of knowledge
Any scientific theory or model is based on the choice of concepts and axioms, which inevitably involves an element of arbitrariness. The validity of laws is only established a posteriori by a process that controls the consequences.
In physics, control is exercised through criticism, observation and experimentation. In other words, we do not know if the theories in use are really correct, but we do have criteria for rejecting the false ones. The physicist knows that the fundamental laws of physics are "hypotheses that have not been disproved so far". This is expressed by saying that physics uses "revocable models". Repeated observations do not prove a law, but only support an existing model or formulate a new model. The notion of scientific truth has been relativised: the truth of a model has a provisional character: it is only valid as long as no observation contradicts it. It is said that science obeys the "principle of revision". Induction can never provide definitive proof that a physical theory is "true". There are no certain theories 3, only hypothetical but well-tested theories, and false theories.
Conversely, neo-thomism does not admit the impossibility of demonstrating the first axioms of a theory. It also rejects the hypothetical or revisable character of its speculations. It presents itself from the outset as a miraculous theory that exposes "absolute and immutable truth". Its faculty of interpretation is such that no fact or event could invalidate it. Doesn't the neothomist feel any discomfort in claiming this singular privilege?
On the existence of a principle of causality
In a probabilistic, and therefore non-deterministic theory, the word "cause" takes on a radically different meaning from the classical definition. Quantum physics has abandoned the classical principle of causality. There are phenomena that have no cause 4. The same causes do not always produce the same effects 5. it has even been established that it is a true hazard, i.e. not produced by hidden determinism 6. Contrary to what Einstein said "God does not play dice", we know today that the evolution of reality is not predetermined: the future is neither contained in the present nor written in advance.
3 In this context, true and false are not symmetrical.
4 For example, the disintegration of a nucleus of a radio-active isotope.
5 The state of a quantum particle is expressed by probabilities.
6 Nicolas Gisin, The unthinkable randomness, edition Odile Jacob.
In such a context, can a general principle of causality still be invoked? Why should the general principle of causality not admit exceptions? This can be seen as one more argument against Thomistic proofs of the existence of God.
On the universality of a principle of causality
The physicist knows that each theory defines its own notion of causality. For example, Aristotle claimed that the speed of a body was caused by a force, which Newton corrected by linking the force to the acceleration. Thus, in classical physics, speed has no cause 7. The notions of causality in the various physical theories - relativity, quantum mechanics - are incompatible with each other. There is no precise definition of causality valid for all physics. The description of causality is a horizon towards which we are tending (grand unification theory), but which is still largely unknown. Identifying causality is a project, an objective. Therefore, in neo-thomism, how could the general principle of causality be universal without being extremely vague, ill-defined, even utopian?
7 It is not even possible to distinguish between immobility and uniform rectilinear movement.
On the nature of a principle of causality
In pre-university education, the emphasis on "final causes" can be a barrier to understanding the natural sciences. To those who argue that it is better to have concepts from antiquity than nothing at all, I reply that it is better to adopt 21st century perspectives.
On the invalidation of Aristotle's philosophy by the natural sciences
Aristotle's philosophy supports fixism (plant and animal species have remained unchanged since the dawn of time) and essentialism (each plant or animal species is characterised by an essence that defines it).
These conceptions have been invalidated by Darwin's theory of evolution. Variations within the same species are not anomalies, but the rule. These variations, at the basis of the functioning of life, are the engine of evolution.
There is no such thing as pure form, because nature does not seek to reproduce models or patterns identically.
In high school, it is dangerous to develop Aristotle's thinking insistently without giving him the necessary warnings.
On the borderline between philosophy and science
The natural sciences take a certain risk by making assertions that could be disproved by the facts. A single experimental fact is enough to disprove a theory. A theory is scientific because it asserts the impossibility of certain events.
For example, according to Aristotle, the universe is closed and full, therefore emptiness does not exist. If a place seems empty, it is full of air. It would be inconceivable for a place to escape the Creator. Torricelli was the first, around 1640, to highlight the emptiness by means of a barometer. Aristotle's physical theory was gradually put into the archives. It should be noted in passing that the reasoning thus contradicted is of a theological nature, which gives no credence to this type of argumentation. Only a theologian can believe that theology is the queen of sciences.
Contrary to scientific theories, philosophical constructions are based on choices whose consequences cannot be denied by observations. They are therefore irrefutable. According to Karl Popper, they are thus positioned in the field of doctrine and ideology. To reveal the arbitrary nature of their content, it is enough to compare them with competing theories.
Consequently, the authority argument plays a negligible role in the sciences, but is central in philosophy.
About the two cultures
Our society is the meeting point of two cultures: the first with a literary core, which has its roots in Greek Antiquity; the second with a scientific core, which did not really develop until the 17th century after fleeing from the bosom of Thomistic philosophy. It is to be seen as a real revolution through which culture went from the royalty of philosophy to the democracy of the arts and sciences. In each of these two worlds, the background knowledge, the concepts that serve as a reference for the discourse, the play of evocations and analogies, everything is different. What resists oblivion is artistic; what resists criticism is scientific. The artist who calls himself an intuitive has a propensity to imagine relationships and quickly forms an opinion, without the requirement to establish whether these relationships are truly real. There is a greater cultural gap between a writer and a physicist than between a French-speaking writer and an English-speaking writer. On either side of the gap of incomprehension, intellectual attitudes are antinomic: in the first, respect, admiration, even devotion to cultural heritage and the sacredness of tradition; in the second, the testing of the capital transmitted 8. The distance between these two cultural postures makes dialogue difficult.
For many people, the two cultures are stored in separate, watertight drawers, leading to a kind of split personality: on the one hand, the man who respects a tradition, usually religious, and who, in expressing his culture, imposes an arrogant monologue on nature, and on the other, the rational man who modestly submits his scientific theories to the test of observation and experimentation. But it is not reason that governs the human being.
To be credible, a philosophy with global pretensions cannot be the exclusive domain of one of the two cultures. A new vision of the world remains to be built. It will certainly be more modest 9 and less pretentious than neo-thomism.
No credible philosophy without independence
A state university must be secular, because a partisan environment biases knowledge. In Fribourg, the Catholic theological faculty is influential. Philosophers who put themselves at the service of a religious ideology are like architects who, ignoring the negative reports of geologists, draw up plans for the seventeenth floor of a building destined to collapse. In an officially Catholic university and heir to the Kulturkampf, their situation curbs their independence of mind and discredits them by profiling them as propagandists. The impact on the teaching of philosophy at upper secondary level is obvious: even if presented in a less dogmatic way than in the past, ways of seeing, thinking and judging are Catholic subjects that are protected as reserved areas 10, despite the context of public education. While philosophy should be the awakening of reason and critical thinking, I have too often encountered official ideologues in my colleagues.
8 We should not oppose "exact sciences" and "human sciences", because the so-called exact sciences are neither perfectly exact nor inhuman. All sciences are made by men and for men. The borderline is elsewhere, between those who use a scientific method and those who do not, especially the arts. However, as there are degrees in rigour, the borderline is a little blurred.
9 «Humility is the antechamber of all perfections.» Marcel Aymé, Clérambard.
According to Karl Popper, the philosopher cannot be the one who seeks the truth, but the one who flushes out error. In my opinion, only a minimal philosophy, i.e. one that limits itself to a small number of essential decisions and draws the consequences, can be universally applicable. One of the conditions for the development of the sciences is the complete renunciation of recourse to pure spirits, occult forces or a demiurge writer. Presumably, the same should be true of philosophy. In order to strengthen its credibility, it should renounce the art of justifying unfounded religious dogmas with pretentious rhetoric.
Theology, which has renounced its reign over the sciences, must also abandon its pretensions to philosophy, as well as a tendentious way of interpreting history. A theological faculty, characterised by a confessional commitment and subservient to doctrinal authority, has no place in a state university. Academic freedom draws on other sources.
For those who want to base their knowledge on solid foundations, the Faculty of Theology appears as credible as an implausible Faculty of Astrology. I have a different conception of the role of the state. In place of the Faculty of Theology, I would like to see a "Department of Religious Sciences", free from any confessional affiliation, that is to say completely secular.
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