Being a Catholic physicist

The problem with being a Catholic (or other form of Christian) and a scientist is not what our atheist colleagues imagine.  They wonder how we deal with all the contradictions that they imagine must plague us, but in fact the problem is the opposite.  The findings of the natural sciences and the dogmas of faith don’t clash because they deal with different things: different answers to different questions.  But this itself is a problem:  every Catholic knows that the reason God made him is to know, love, and serve the Lord.  How does pure science do this?  There’s a story that the great physicist (and nonpracticing Jew) I. I. Rabi used to ask graduate students choosing a thesis project if they thought that project would lead them closer to God.  Could any of us answer “yes”?

If it’s hard for Catholic scientists to see a relationship between these two central parts of their lives, outspokenly atheist scientists don’t seem to have this problem.  They see their scientific research on one hand, and their political/philosophical commitments on the other, as parts of a single effort, the struggle of “reason” against “ignorance” or “superstition”.  It’s easy for us to make fun of their dumb Manicheism, but let’s acknowledge the admirable unity they have brought to their lives.  It may do a great deal to explain the attraction of atheism in scientific circles.

The trouble is that it’s not clear how improved knowledge of the natural world brings one closer to God.  No doubt creation shines forth the glory of the Lord, each creature in its own way, and contemplating the signature of God in these finite things can be a spiritually fruitful activity.  But isn’t this an activity for poets and theologians?  How does science help?  Do the atoms of quantum mechanics show God more clearly than the atoms of Dalton or Democritus?  Does His presence seem stronger now that we know that neutrinos have mass?

I think we must admit that knowledge of the natural world doesn’t bring one closer to God.  Fortunately, knowing about the natural world isn’t what scientists do; it’s just a product of what scientists do.  Scientists investigate the natural world, and I think that the investigation of nature is something that can reinforce the Christian spiritual life.  Scientific investigation–experimental, observational, or theoretical–is at its most basic an opening of oneself to the intelligibility of Being.  We start with ideas about how some natural phenomenon works, and then we confront these ideas with nature itself, allow it to “speak”, and then struggle to reform our ideas, conforming them to the truth.  Science is ultimately passive in the sense that it does not aim to impose an order on the world, but aims to bring a preexisting order into the mind.  On the other hand, it is not passive in the sense of effortless passivity.  The process of getting the order of the universe into one’s head requires intense effort of formulating, testing, and reformulating theories.  In the end, one finds a model with confirmed predictive power.  In my experience, most physicists experience at one point or other in their career a sense of awe when they see an experiment agree with predictions.  “How can these electrons really care about these equations in my notebook?”, they are tempted to exclaim.  By looking intently at one aspect of it, they have been led to appreciate a shocking fact:  the intelligibility, the Logos, present in the world.  A thing ordinarily too all-encompassing to be appreciated, one comes to appreciate intelligibility by “communicating” with it intensively over one of its manifestations.

We Christians know that the intelligibility seen by the scientist is a glimpse of the Logos that created the world and that is revealed in Jesus Christ.  The point of the Christian life is to open oneself to Christ, to allow oneself to be reformed in His image.  It is another, higher form of openness to God; like science, it is passive (because the goal is for an outside form to be imprinted on oneself) and arduous (because the new form must be subjectively and creatively appropriated).  Of course, the two activities are not interchangeable–research is not a substitute for prayer–but they have an analogy that allows Christian scientists, like their atheist counterparts, to see the two activities of their lives as parts of a single project.  The Christian is struck by the realization that it is the same Christ speaking to him in his conscience, in scripture, and in his experiments.

I admit the above is pretty vague, as I think it must be.  The particular insight into the Logos that scientific discipline brings is not something that can be abstracted and detached from the investigation that produces it.  It would be much easier if Catholic scientists had a community to support us, with its own patron saints, prayers, gatherings, and rituals.  How valuable it would be for young researchers if we had role models–men both holy and professionally distinguished–to show us how such a life is to be led.  That’s the shame:  not enough of us to create the sort of environment that would attract more of us.

25 Responses

  1. The mystery of the universe, the Big bang , how did it all start….. that’s the bottomline for me, it’s beyond my comprehension… and that makes me believe it is God’s. That’s all I can think of.

  2. […] that they imagine must plague us, but in fact the problem is … View full post on catholic – Google Blog Search Tagged with: Altar • Being • Catholic • Physicist • Throne  If you […]

  3. Back when I was an atheist and math major, a friend, hearing me complaining about how long it took me to understand the proof of the implicit function theorem, asked me why I was spending my time this way. I replied that understanding a difficult proof was glimpsing the face of God. I was not smart enough to do graduate work in math, but, as best I can tell, roughly all mathematicians do math for this reason.

  4. I’m inclined to agree. It seems (to me, at least) that the strongest holdouts of atheism are in those fields most insulated from scientific inquiry and methodology — chiefly sociology, literature, and identity studies.

  5. I suppose that’s true as a relative statement, but the sciences are plenty atheistic.

  6. Pure math is hard. I remember being an undergraduate taking an undergrad real analysis course and a graduate general relativity course. It was the analysis class that I had to drop, while I got an A in GR.

  7. Hello renxkyoko,

    Nice to meet you. I try not to place too much emphasis on the big bang. What if it should turn out that inflation goes back to t=-infinity? A de Sitter universe has no beginning. Fortunately, I think the need to invoke God to explain contingent beings can be established regardless.

  8. Wow. You win. You’re the douchiest person I’ve come across online. Granted, I don’t surf neo-Nazi or Wahhabist websites, so you might have some competition there, but… wow.

  9. Oh, my. Incisive argument, that.

  10. You might want to check out my blog to find someone douchier. Maybe your brain will expand a bit someday.

  11. Hi Dan,

    Amazing the crap one can find on the internet, huh?

  12. I disagree that knowledge of the natural world does not bring one closer to God. In understanding nature more, the mind conforms more to the natural order that manifests God. Science may not regulate our souls as much as asceticism, for instance, but both have an orderly effect. Truth is a transcendent universal, and the pursuit of truth is a divinely beneficial task. When you look at atheist scientists, this may not be apparent, but they are much closer to God than nihilists who deny truth. For the rational rigors and object oriented striving of natural philosophy safeguard them from greater errors.

  13. Hello Joseph,

    I think we actually agree. I said that knowledge of the natural world doesn’t bring one closer to God, but that investigating the natural world does. That is, the spiritual benefit doesn’t depend on what answers you actually find, just that you arrive at them rigorously.

  14. Bonald, you put things so well! This post turns out to be an important discernment tool for a new reader of your blog, who also happens to be a Catholic physicist and who is considering a religious vocation. Thanks!

  15. We certainly agree that the search helps, but we disagree in that I maintain that the knowledge gained, rather than simply the gaining, is spiritually useful.

    Wouldn’t you say that conforming our minds so that our ideas are correct (or more correct) is a good thing? If creation exhibits the order of God, then the mind’s knowing that order orders the mind itself. The search is useful, but according to your argument, it would be just as good for us to do science and then to come to the wrong conclusion (since the knowledge gained is unimportant). So, falsehood would be equivalent to truth in how it affects us. But that is unacceptable. The end of the quest toward knowing is knowledge.

    I’ll grant that it’s hard for us to see how knowing (or misunderstanding) the spin of particular subatomic particle contributes to our spiritual well being. Yet, by piecing together bits of knowledge, our awareness of the natural order grows, and therefore our awareness of the divine order upon which it is based grows.

    My assumption in this is that I see the world as a reflection of God. I do not accept that mechanistic reduction of natural philosophy, which puts me beyond the pale of acceptable “scientific” opinion. I think that Aristotle’s causes are useful in showing us that there are different ways to think about natural phenomena and that they manifest different truths, even if we do not accept Aristotelian science in its entirety. In the modern world, we only accept efficient causality, but I believe that this has blinded us to many other intelligible aspects of nature. Mechanism is at work, but such is not the only thing that can be known.

    Nice blog, by the way.

  16. Hi Branson,

    Thank you. We Catholics in intellectual pursuits are rare, but it makes a big difference to each of us knowing that he’s not totally alone. If a Catholic scientific culture is to be built, we’re going to need more self-consciously Catholic scientists and more priests and religious who understand (and are able to provide spiritual guidance for) the scientific enterprise.

  17. Finding communion and unity in the search itself is an interesting point. Although I may not agree that knowledge is necessarily incapable of bringing one closer to God (for example, the knowledge that the Maxwell Equations exhibit their beautiful U(1) symmetry brings out a more profound structure, the essence of which I see as an extension of God), I think the point you make is even more relevant: searching for knowledge, and the thinking involved in such a search does bring you closer.

    I see the ‘evangelistic atheism’ of some contemporary scientists as destructive, since it implies the search for fundamental structure itself should be governed by a sort of scientific nihilism. But this would tend to curtail all but the most superficial questions of meaning and unity in modern physics–and thus hamper an extremely rich and bountiful research program. For example, if unity were not sought so intently in the many elementary particles abounding in the 60’s and 70’s, there would be no standard model, whereas a nihilistic, atheistic view would not give substance to such questions at the point of their inception.

    A hearty thank you from one Catholic physicist to another.

  18. Hi Adam,

    Thank you for commenting. It’s good to know there are a few of us Catholic physicists out there.

  19. Ah yes, It’s good to see that the union of the sets of those who have an interest in physics and the set of those within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church contains a significant number of memebrs; signficant enough for one to have a blog post discussing them. To be honest, I doubt that there is entirely nothing to be gained from knowing certain things. True, it helps no-one to know that the years are shorter than the days on Venus (or was it Mercury?), but in probing the unknown fields such as particle physics, one gets closer to the laws, written by God Himself, which govern His creation. While there is great pleasure to be derived in the mere act of probing the universe, since, as you have stated, one can feel the intelligibility of the universe, one can sense the order in the metastruture of the universe. One can tell that there is a systematic way by which the universe is run. However, this is incomparable to the intellectual orgasm which is the deciphering of the laws, through said metastructure. Seeing the laws which govern the universe is far more beautiful than merely knowing that these laws exist. This greater beauty enables us to clearer see the face of God through Science. It is true that knowing neutrinos have mass is not entirely spiritually fulfilling. But when (or rather, if) we use that fact to complete the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the Theory of Everything, it will suddenly become incredibly beautiful. To know the essence of the universe, through which God created the Sun, Stars, Moon, Planets, and everything we can observe, will bring us far closer to God than sensing His presence through the inferred intelligibility of the universe. To quote Copernicus: “To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”

    P.S. Personally, as a subscriber of the ‘consciousness-causes-collapse’ theory, I think it is absolutely heartwarming to know that God, our loving Father, had created the universe such that it would only be defined by His children observing it. In other words, we, in a sense, by collapsing wavefunctions, create the universe, a tidy little feature programmed in by God. Thanks, God!

  20. It doesn’t look like this will ever be read but just in case…
    ” How valuable it would be for young researchers if we had role models–men both holy and professionally distinguished–to show us how such a life is to be led. That’s the shame: not enough of us to create the sort of environment that would attract more of us.”
    This ending statement sums it up for my son who would like to combine his optical engineering degree with the priesthood or brotherhood. He is presently working with NASA to prepare for asteroid strikes. He would rather work on this with the Church. It seems a natural to me that the Church would want to save life on earth “the good ,the true and the beautiful” as well as our souls.
    If anyone out there has any info that could help, Luke, my son, would be grateful.

  21. Hi Theresa,

    This is a good question. Of course, the two things are compatible in principle; the question is how to combine them practically in a single person’s life. I have been thinking about your son’s situation for a little while, and so far I haven’t come up with any really good advice. I’ll keep thinking, though. Do any of my readers have any ideas?

  22. Well, there is of course the Vatican Observatory, but I’m not sure how one would go about getting a foot in the door there.
    As far as combining his work with the priesthood, I assume that the correct approach would be to enter seminary in the ordinary way – I don’t know of any order with a special charism in the sciences. Probably the best thing would be for him to speak to a good vocations director.
    God bless.

  23. Hi Theresa,

    I think that Luke may find, as I have, that there is indeed a path for him in the Church who discerns that God calls him to a life of dedication to the service of the Church and that he is called at the same time to practice his usual profession.

    He may find what he is looking for in the Prelature of Opus Dei, founded by St. Josemaria Escriva. You can check this website for more information: 🙂

    I am currently studying civil engineering with specialization in hydraulics and water resources, and am grateful to have found my vocation at my age!


  24. Bonald,

    Wow. This articulated my thoughts about physics and Catholicism incredibly well. The primary reason I fell in love with physics in high school was because I saw how its beauty and logic is a reflection of Divine Beauty and Logos. I remember when I was 17 learning about the Coulomb force several months after learning about the gravitational force, and just being amazed at how beautiful nature is. I mean, can we just talk about how awesome laser cooling is??? Nearly a year after learning about it, I’m still in awe! And then there’s the mystery of quantum mechanics, which is kind of like trying to fully comprehend God, or any of the mysteries of the Church. Every time I read Aquinas’s Treatise on God (or any part of the Summa Theologiae), my mind is blown like most days in quantum. Doing physics gives me a glimpse of the beatific vision.

    I will be starting graduate school this fall to earn a Ph.D. in experimental AMO. Do you have any advice for a young Catholic physicist? Also, what area of physics are you in?

    God bless!

  25. Hello MacKenzie,

    I work in numerical relativity. If I were to do graduate school over, I would have tried harder to keep up with the literature in neighboring fields and avoid specialization. Graduate school is a wonderful time, though. Good luck.

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