Things I Can’t Not See
Here’s a gorgeous wonder:
I have never had sufficient faith to be an atheist. I think it takes titanic amounts of faith and will power to look at this world and say, “That was lucky!” I have always been a theist, even when I was not a Christian, because it has always seemed much simpler to intuit that Something or Someone was at work behind the world moving toward some unfathomable end than to see it as the biggest, luckiest car crash ever. It has always felt more like a story or a work of art than radio static that happened to come out as Beethoven’s Ninth. I can’t not intuit that.
Some people will tell me that’s just my evolved brain detecting patterns where none exist. I answer that my evolved brain is another obvious sign and sacrament of the order and love behind the whole beautiful thing. I can’t not intuit that either. And since the entirety of the work of Science is detecting the fact that patterns do exist, I don’t see what’s wrong with concluding that the existence of Laws implies the existence of a Lawgiver–or more precisely, an Artist.
One friend complained that I “rely on the science which does assume it is essentially a chance-driven universe to explain the Covid virus mutating and to design safe vaccines against it.”
That’s because I have no problem with methodological atheism in science, nor with the idea that chance is part of God’s design, since chance is just the word we use to denote We Know Not What. 1 Kings 22 tells the story of a king confronted by a prophet who warns him that if he goes into battle he will be killed. The king ignores the prophet like a pig-headed fool and goes into battle in disguise. An enemy archer draws his bow “at random” and kills the king as prophesied. This interplay between what we call “chance” and what we call “divine providence” is something the Christian tradition takes for granted and something I’ve never understood as being in conflict. Nor do casino designers, whose entire job is design places where chance favors the House and random events are ordered to achieve the end the House wants.
Intelligent Design guys demand to know why seeming exceptions to the laws of nature such as specified complexity happen. This is basically a God of the Gaps argument, rather like an appeal to miracles. ID arguments rely on the notion that non-living things are “mere nature” but living things like the cell above are inexplicable-apart-from-God things. Mere nature, in this view, is the outworking of natural laws, but living things are the result of exceptions to natural laws. And those exceptions prove God. No exceptions, no God.
St. Thomas never does this. He (and Augustine) both start their arguments for the existence of God, not with appeals to exceptions to the laws of nature but with the laws themselves. Thomas never asks for an explanation to exceptions to the laws of nature or demands “If there is no God, then explain this inexplicable thing!”
Instead, he begins with the Rules and sees all of nature, both living and non-living, as the grand unfolding of those rules. That is, he begins where natural science begins and affirms the axioms upon which natural science is founded. To attack his argument, you have to attack the axioms that make science work at all. You have to deny that we can know the world around us through our senses, that the three pound piece of meat behind our eyes can understand that world, and that the world operates according to knowable rules which describe the relations between the creatures Time, Space, Matter, and Energy.
Science can’t prove those axioms. It simply has to assume them to be true or it can’t function at all. In short, although its methodology is rightly atheistic, its foundational axioms rest on Faith that knowable laws exist, that what philosophy calls “secondary causes” are real causes, and that we can “intellect” them (that is, “read between the lines”) of what our senses report to us and figure out the causal relationships between creatures.
Without the axiomatic faith in rational laws governing creatures (coming from Faith in the Logos) and (just as important) the faith that creatures act as secondary causes (attempted but ultimately killed by Islamic piety that insisted God alone could be the cause of all natural activity) you don’t get the natural sciences, which is why they were born in medieval Christian Europe, though false starts and precursors happened elsewhere and in other times.
I think one of the great tragedies of history is the loss of the sacramental perception of Nature that occurred with the Reformation. Ironically, Terry Pratchett, perhaps the most Catholic atheist of our time, captured the Thomistic and Catholic view of science’s penetration of natural phenomena when he said, “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
In this, he comes surprisingly close to Chesterton, who remarks in his Orthodoxy,
The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
You may think this flippant. I only note that when I talk about the fact that Thomas appeals to the existence of the Rules as implying the existence of a Rulegiver, the reply of the dogged atheist sooner or later comes down to “Just because!” when one asks “Why is there anything? And why does it behave according to these Rules?” If the Christian answer is deemed “magical’, I reply that “Because!” is just as magical, but lacks the rather sensible inference that magic is usually done by Magicians and not by Nothing.
This sums up why I’ve always thought the whole “Science explains why God is unnecessary” argument has always seemed tone deaf to Catholic sacramentalism and the entire Catholic understanding of creation. For Thomas:
Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship. – St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268
So he writes:
Nothing entirely new was afterwards made by God, but all things subsequently made had in a sense been made before in the work of the six days. …. Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning. – St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.73.i, ad. 3 et resp. 3
Forget the wrong science about “putrefaction”. Medievals, unable to see the eggs laid in rotting meat by insects, guessed that the process of rotting was what created the maggots. It was a reasonable but wrong guess owing to the lack of microscopes. Thomas simply took the word of contemporary science for granted to illustrate his point just as an ordinary person today takes the word of “consensus science” for granted about climate change, plate tectonics, or relativity without knowing much about those disciplines beyond something he saw on the Discovery Channel.
The main point is this: Thomas believes, just like a modern evolutionist, that new species (should any turn up) would be brought forth by purely natural powers. In his day the best guess of science was that stars and the elements causing putrefaction were the natural agents of change. These days it is cosmic rays or “environmental agents” causing a mutation in a genome. But the point is, Thomas grasped that new species arose from natural causes, not because of a violation or suspension of natural causes. He saw creation as the unfolding of powers and potentialties put into nature by God and had no problem with the idea that this unfolding over time was simply the way creation happens. He likewise had no trouble with the idea that as the author of Proverbs put it, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter. It is the glory of kings to search a matter out”. The idea that searching a matter out emptied the matter of glory or showed that God had not concealed the matter was untelligible to him for the very good reason that such a claim makes no sense.
So I continue to look in wonder at the Creation as fundamentally sacramental: as charged with Meaning, not Meaninglessness. That I don’t understand most of the meaning is irrelevant, just as a book in a language I don’t understand does not imply the non-existence of the Author, but challenges me to find a translator or, better still, try to learn the language or find out if, perhaps, the Author speaks my language and has written anything I might read.
That, in a word–or more precisely, in a Word–is what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago when the Word was made flesh. Or, as Hebrews put it:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
All the signs and hints in nature were pointing somewhere, or more precisely, at Someone. Nothing in the Sciences has–or can–done a thing to disprove that.