Fools Rush In

Stanley L. Jaki, Questions on Science and Religion (Pinckney, MI: Real View Books 2004), $16, Paperback

Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.

Stanley L. Jaki’s Questions on Science and Religion is 201 pages of text, organized in 14 chapters, supplemented by a 2 page foreword, a 3 page listing of the author’s other works, and a 1 page biography of the author. It contains 100 footnotes and 1 drawing. I have not counted the number of paragraphs or words in the book, but that can be done by anyone interested in doing so. Nor do I have the expertise necessary to determine the font size in which the book is printed.

After reading the preceding paragraph you are perhaps wondering: why the quantitative description of the book? You are probably more interested in what the book conveys, what its purpose is. The paragraph’s focus on the quantitative cannot provide that. Indeed, you may be slightly irritated by the paragraph because, you rightly believe, a book review should instead address the book’s content.

Science, according to Fr. Jaki, is only concerned with the quantitative aspect of things.  “Science has to measure in order to legitimate any of its claims and discoveries.”  Science, thus, cannot answer any question that begins with “what is.” What is: gravity? force? mass? energy? Science can use quantities to measure and describe them, but it cannot explain the nature of the thing or process. “Hence science can say something about everything, but in fact very little about most things as long as one thinks that the words ‘what,’ ‘why,’ ‘for what purpose,’ ‘morally good or bad’ are not taken for mere words.” Science, in other words, can describe a book in quantitative terms, but it cannot evaluate its content.

Religion, in contrast, has no competence about quantities. But philosophy or religion can address “what” or “why” or “for what purpose” or “morally good or bad.” Thus, Fr. Jaki repeatedly states: science concerns how the heavens go, religion concerns how to go to heaven. Whenever science or religion is invoked to declaim on matters within the competence of the other, then confusion, misunderstandings, and errors follow almost inexorably. “God did not put quantities (including science) and all else (including religion) in opposition to one another. He merely put them in two domains that for a human mind are not conceptually reducible to one another. It is in their being separate from one another that they serve their respective aims without confusion. Such is the gist of the answer to all questions about the relation of science and religion.”

Fr. Jaki brutally exposes those who use science to argue that there is no God, or that there is nothing but the material, or that Christianity is false. Just as brutally, he exposes those who try to use religion to disprove science, or to use science or arguments based on it, to prove religious points.

Science cannot prove or disprove creation out of nothing, Fr. Jaki points out, because it cannot measure existence, non-existence, or nothing. Science must assume existence. “To be seized by the question of why anything exists at all demands a mind that sees more than what science can see. … To be seized by that question one has to draw on a heritage which science as such cannot exploit, let alone evaluate. The question is within the purview of any mind whether touched or untouched by science.”

The explanation of existence and essence is in the realm of philosophy and religion, not science. Believers, though, should not “swear by” the “Bible’s first chapter, or Genesis 1, the famed creation story,” as a “science textbook endorsed by the word of God.” “Augustine of Hippo formulated the precept that since salvation history tends toward a new heaven and a new earth, whatever it contains about this physical world is not necessarily a revealed truth. Therefore if any biblical statement about this physical world is found in conflict with what reason had established, it should be reinterpreted accordingly.”

Whenever the Church has forgotten or disregarded St. Augustine’s admonition, such as in the Galileo case, it has held itself up to ridicule. Thus, writes Fr. Jaki, “those who try to introduce creationism as an alternate to evolution do the worst disservice to the salvation history which they profess to believe in.” Science can establish, for example, that, contrary to the statement in Genesis 1, there is no firmament or roof above the earth. Neither religion nor the Bible requires believers to pretend otherwise. One must concede Genesis 1 is not a scientific description, and therefore, one must not proffer it as an alternative to any scientific theory, including evolution. This, of course, is not an endorsement of Darwinism, or the uses to which Darwin’s scientific theory are put. It merely reflects that all or parts of his theory may be disproved by science; none can be proved or disproved by Genesis 1.

If Fr. Jaki reserves special disdain for those who push religion into the realm of science by insisting on creationism, he has at least as great a disdain for those scientists who urge science as offering a materialistic explanation of everything. “Nothing shows so effectively the atrophying character of scientific thinking, or rather of a thinking that wants to be exclusively scientific, than the denial, by great scientists, of man’s free will. Einstein was one of these to his eternal shame. … A world view in which the World, or the Universe writ large is the ultimate entity, allows no room for free will, not even for thinking freely about such an ultimate entity.”

He even invokes science to demonstrate that science cannot explain all. Specifically, he invokes Gödel’s Theorem. “Only those trained in mathematical logic would savor” Gödel’s Theorem as first expressed in 1931, but, he says, it was put “in a form comprehensible to the layman” in 1962. Basically, Gödel’s Theorem demonstrates mathematically that in any arithmetic system there will be a statement that can neither be proved nor disproved; the consistency of an arithmetic system cannot be proved within that system. To prove or disprove every conceivable statement about numbers within the system, one must go outside the system to come up with new rules and axioms - thus creating a larger system with its own unprovable statements.

I admit I was confused by Fr. Jaki’s discussion of Gödel’s Theorem, even after reading it several times. Indeed, to come to my layman’s understanding of the theorem that I set forth in the preceding paragraph, I had to go outside Fr. Jaki’s book by consulting Antony Flew’s A Dictionary of Philosophy. I readily concede a mathematician may consider my condensation of the theorem technically deficient. But, I believe, my condensation allows Fr. Jaki’s salient point: “Physicists, who by 1930 were working on a theory that would unify relativity theory and quantum mechanics, should have realized that Gödel’s paper was a handwriting on the wall of their fondest aspirations. After all, their theories of physics were becoming more and more mathematical and forbiddingly so.” And, “Gödel’s theorem dealt a grievous blow to hopes about a final physical theory because this could not be implemented without a very elaborate form of mathematics.” Thus, “such a theory is possible to formulate, but when it is on hand one cannot know that it is a final theory,” given Gödel’s Theorem.

Some scientists suggest they are working to establish a unified physical theory that would make a Creator unnecessary because it would show that the universe necessarily is what it is and cannot be anything else. They believe science would thus rebut the theological argument that the universe is contingent and therefore needs a Creator.  But, because Gödel’s Theorem shows there cannot be a mathematical system with a proof of built-in consistency, and because physics must be highly mathematical, no one can construct a physical theory that would be strictly final. In other words, Gödel’s Theorem renders the scientific search for a provable unified theory a fool’s errand. And, of course, the fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Fr. Jaki is knowledgeable, insightful, even brilliant. He has doctorates in theology and science. Questions on Science and Religion is meant as a summary or synthesis of the principal points he has made in previous works on science and religion during his lengthy career. The “book has especially been written” for Catholics, but it sometimes assumes a familiarity with history, philosophy, and science that few are likely to have. Consequently, some allusions are obscure and one cannot help but think one has missed some of Fr. Jaki’s points. Fr. Jaki’s humor is wry and dry; his style is sometimes slightly stilted and complicated by use of the passive voice. Despite his receipt of the Templeton Prize and other honors, he seems exasperated that his insights have not received greater public recognition.

James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.

This review was published in the March, 2006 issue of Culture Wars.


amazon Block
Search for an Amazon product to display. Learn more