Omissions of formal and final causes in the modern scientific project lead to a sense of meaninglessness. Bringing them back allows a crucial reinterpretation of the evidence of modern science: that matter carries within it its own divine purposiveness, and it moves by its nature into greater and greater complexities of order and beauty.
This has been a strange year for science. Most people are willing to concede that good scientific evidence should be authoritative in revealing the nature of COVID-19, for example, and the best ways of dealing with it. But contradictory reports appear on an almost daily basis. Despite our willingness to credit the scientific method, it is easy to suspect that many studies are either politically motivated or misreported. Fifty years ago, journalism schools taught their graduates to give objective accounts without editorializing, but these days overt bias rules the profession, and it’s difficult to tell from the media what the actual findings of “science” are. Moreover, scientists themselves increasingly fall under political pressure. Physicist Lawrence Strauss argued last month in The Wall Street Journal that money increasingly goes to projects whose “findings” are politically determined in advance, and scientists who challenge the agenda not only lose the funds to pursue their research, but even lose their academic positions.
This year’s Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, which ended last night, dealt with a different dimension of science. Conceived in its outlines last summer and organized by Dr. James Tonkowich, this program brought together faculty from WCC’s Humanities, Philosophy, Theology, and Math/Science tracks, including Dr. Tiffany Schubert, Dr. Scott Olsson, Dr. Michael Bolin, Dr. Stanley Grove, and Dr. Jeremy Holmes, to discuss the ideas of beauty and scientific truth with participants from across the country (literally, Florida to California). The week began with an overview of the medieval model of the cosmos that C.S. Lewis called “The Discarded Image,” continued with Dr. Alex Rosenberg’s “Scientism and the Theory of Mind,” which states the perspective of much of modern science, completely rejecting purpose or meaning in nature, and moved through more complex considerations of causality to culminate in a view of cosmic history.
The week was conceived as a highly condensed version of what WCC students learn over four years, and this is not the place to recount the particulars of the readings and discussions. But the effect was evident. The presentations took areas of thought that some participants described as fearful and even threatening (such as what Charles De Koninck called “The Lifeless World of Biology”) and showed them rather as hopeful and full of astonishing beauty. What emerged from faculty lectures, seminars, slideshows of cosmic distances and the unfolding universe, even a field trip into Wyoming’s geological wonderland, was a much keener sense that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Matter carries within it its own divine purposiveness, and it moves by its nature into greater and greater complexities of order and beauty.
Early in the modern era, the French scientist and thinker Blaise Pascal was terrified by the vast interstellar emptiness, the meaningless extension of space. This week’s participants began, rather, to behold a cosmos of infinite vastness and complexity whose knowability is nevertheless the domain of man’s dominion and stewardship of being. They saw the outlines of a beautiful new synthesis that accomplishes what the discarded medieval model did, but with better scientific backing. At the same time, they saw the particulars of the natural world on our own scale—the looks of animals, the appearances of the nature we actually experience—as full of meanings of their own.
For most participants, the week brought a more complete understanding of causality than modern natural science admits. As Dr. Bolin demonstrated in a discussion centered on Hans Christian Andersen’s short piece “The Pen and the Inkstand,” causality mistakes lead to undue emphasis on one kind of cause. The inkstand in Andersen’s story, for example, thinks it is responsible for the contents of a beautiful poem; after all, the poem could not appear and be read without ink. True enough: the matter through which the poem became visible is a cause. But so is the shape the ink takes from the pen, which owes that shape to the hand doing the shaping, which is itself wielded by the poet, whose purpose brings about the rest.
Aristotle called these material, formal, efficient, and final causes. The modern scientific project originating in Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes centers on matter and what moves it—that is, material and efficient causes. It deliberately ignores form and denies purpose as a cause in nature. These omissions lead to a sense of meaninglessness, whereas bringing them back allows a crucial reinterpretation of the evidence of modern science.
As in previous years of the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, this has been a bracing week. Our topic for next year will be decided soon, and my hope is that those of you who have not had the opportunity will be able to join us in person next summer. In the meantime, please consider our new collaboration, The Great Books Core Program, which affords an opportunity for live discussion of great works with excellent teachers. We are delighted to join the Aquinas Institute in this new and timely endeavor.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.
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