Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: Particles of Faith, by Stacy A. Trasancos

One challenge Christians face, particularly millennials, is the apparent challenge Science poses to articles of faith. To be brutally blunt, most of this appearance of challenge stems from the inability of believers and nonbelievers alike to respect the limits of both Science and Religion. An impoverished “progressive” education, neglecting even the most rudimentary instruction in philosophy and leading to rampant neo-philistinism, contributes heavily to the confusion. Many Catholics can benefit from a guide that clarifies those limits and defangs the “hermeneutic of conflict” which decrees the challenge. This is what Stacy A. Trasancos, Ph.D., M.A., offers us in Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 2016; $15.95).

Walking in “No-Man’s Land”

Particles of Faith is not an apologetical work. That’s to say, Dr. Trasancos doesn’t explicitly seek to make converts of atheists, but rather to steer Catholics along a path that will help them comprehend the current state of the sciences that form the “no-man’s land” between belief and unbelief. To this task, she brings an impressive array of education and experience — industrial chemist, theologian, teacher, and mother of seven.

One small complaint: every once in a while, the chemistry talk goes beyond the average layman’s comprehension despite Dr. Trasancos’ obvious attempt to simplify it. I say this as one whose last physical-science course was twenty-three years ago (for what it’s worth, it was organic chemistry, and I got a 4.0). But that’s what Google’s for, right? [Full disclosure: Stacy is not only a friend but the co-publisher and editor emeritus at Catholic Stand; she and Tito Edwards brought me on board there.]

The book is set up in three parts. Part I, “Science in the Light of Faith”, discusses the limitations of science and its necessarily transient state. Part II, “Questions in the Physical Sciences”, delves into the “Big Bang” theory, the relationship of atoms to reality, and the question of whether quantum mechanics explains free will. Part III, “Questions in the Biological Sciences”, discusses evolution from three different angles; particularly useful is the discussion of polygenism versus monogenism (that is, whether humans evolved from a single Adam-and-Eve pair or from a group of independently-evolved individuals).

The Ginkgo Tree

The first chapter concerns Dr. Trasancos’ years in science, first as a student, then as a graduate researcher, finally as an industrial chemist. It’s not a conversion story; rather, it’s a kind of intellectual romance with a bittersweet (if abrupt) ending. The heartbreak occurs during her time as a graduate researcher at Chandlee Laboratory at Penn State, as she was trying to artificially replicate photosynthesis:

I had just spent hours trying to make sense of piles of data that took six months to collect; I had consulted a biochemistry text in case reviewing the chemical reactions of photosynthesis might shed some light on the jagged lines I was trying to interpret. My data looked like a kindergarten art project. I was starting to panic at the thought that my graduation would be delayed or, worse, not granted. As I stood at the window, gripping the ledge and trying to get a grip on myself, my eye fell on an old Ginkgo biloba tree peeking around the corner at th end of the building, a big tree I had never really noticed before. With trepidation, I fixated on the funny-shaped leaves. There were so many. And they flapped in the wind carelessly, mindlessly achieving what I never would. ...

In that moment, I felt a great anxiety, or pain, or something. The best way I can describe the feeling is to compare it to the way I feel at orchestra concerts. As a child, I had the privilege of playing the violin with professional musicians in a university orchestra because my teacher was the lead violinist and instructor at the university. I once enjoyed music, but I became overly focused on technical details in my studies and overly stressed sitting on stage, always in proper concert full black, trying to keep up. I knew that every single instrument makes every note precisely tuned and timed. I knew there are nuances in the way lips have to be formed and lungs have to expand and exhale, in the way hands have to be held and feet have to be placed. ... To this day, I do not know how anyone is supposed to relax as the music plays faster than a human can fully appreciate it. Maybe sadness is what I feel rather than pain or anxiety — in my limits, I cannot stop time and appreciate the music fully, for to stop time would end the music. (pp. 21-22)

Facing the Chasm

This insight Dr. Trasancos calls “the chasm”, the same knowledge I’ve tried to describe in the Laws of Ignorance: that, no matter how much we think we know, the sum of that knowledge is insignificant compared to the sum of the things we don’t know, the things we don’t know that we don’t know, and the things we can’t know. She also calls it a moment of metanoia, a term which denotes a paradigm shift of one’s mental and emotional universe, one which subtly yet fundamentally changes us and sends us down a road we could never have envisioned.

For Dr. Trasancos, who describes her religion at the time as “none” (not agnostic so much as uninterested), the road eventually led away from her chemistry career into full-time motherhood and acceptance of the Faith. “If a scientist is aware of the chasm,” she writes, “he or she must choose either to ignore it or to face it in the light of faith” (p. 29). She also sees the bright side of the chasm: “Life is exciting when you realize that you can spend all your days learning new things.”

I’ve said that Particles of Faith isn’t addressed to nonbelievers. However, Dr. Trasancos does address scientism, “the belief that only knowledge obtained from scientific research is valid” (p.37), as it affects the believer. Her concern is that, while we do encounter and have to occasionally defend ourselves against anti-religious bigotry, we shouldn’t treat science as if faith depends on its findings: “We hold religious truths in faith and certainty because they are revealed by God, not because scientists give them the nod” (p. 39).

Different Approaches

It wouldn’t be correct to say that Dr. Trasancos enforces a strict and thorough separation between science and faith. In particular, she does quote the work of Catholics who have crossed the “no-man’s land” between the two, particularly the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (on whose work she wrote her master’s thesis, Science Was Born of Christianity) and Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, SJ (New Proofs for the Existence of God), both physicists. Here Dr. Trasancos explains the matter:

I am inclined to agree ... that severe limits should be put on drawing theological insights from science. As a scientist, when philosophers or theologians get too excited about science, I find myself thinking, “Leave the science alone, and do not try to make science do more than it can do!” You will not see me cite any single scientific discovery or prediction as proof of God’s existence, not even inductively, because I do not know what will be discovered tomorrow or next year. I do not want to give the impression that science demonstrates the existence of God because I already believe God exists before I ever get to science. ...

On the other hand, I have learned what philosophy and metaphysics seeks to do, and I have come to appreciate Fr. Spitzer’s approach as well. While his volume is generally received as a modern expression of the classical proofs of God’s existence, I see it as valuable in a different way. He shows how sound reasoning ought to lead scientific questioning. Fr. Spitzer’s book offers the kind of guidance a scientist not trained in philosophy needs. If a scientist understood from the outset what conclusions were metaphysically unlikely, then the scientist would have more tools to make research decisions. The right answer to the wrong question is not much use.

Science is Incomplete

Science does not make atheists; rejection of God makes atheists. Ultimately the “God debate” is a philosophical debate, not a scientific issue. We bring into that debate assumptions both true and false that often sit at the back of our minds, unexamined, unconscious, even forgotten. However, as with Scripture, it’s those assumptions which will force the scientific evidence into one model or the other … sometimes with ease, sometimes with great howls of laughter from the opposition.

Science is incomplete, and is in a state of almost constant flux. Even now, some scientists are abandoning the determinism of David Hume for the Werner Heisenberg-inspired indeterminism — the belief that all events are probabilistic in nature. Here we can take one more passage from Dr. Trasancos:

In his intellectual autobiography, A Mind’s Matter, [Fr.] Jaki writes of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory that the misstep is a jump from the operational to the ontological, the presumption that “an interaction that cannot be measured exactly, cannot take place exactly.” By this he meant (and elaborated on in his books) that the theoretical models should be accepted as useful tools but not taken as the full reality. He was very much against extracting philosophical and theological conclusions from incomplete scientific theories. [Fr.] Jaki also taught that a Catholic should be the “most thorough materialist” because it should be obvious that a personal Creator, “the ground of all existence,” can create a “matter which is capable of carrying out every material process.”

Fr. Jaki got Erwin Schrödinger’s joke about the cat, while many physicists took (and still take) it seriously. Dr. Trasancos gets it, too. The moon is still there when no one is looking at it. Science doesn’t pose a threat to Catholicism. Catholicism, however, may save science from taking itself too seriously.