Fr. Stanley L. Jaki on Science as a Pathway to God

Author: John J. Mulloy


John J. Mulloy

<The Road of Science and the Ways to God> by Stanley L. Jaki (University of Chicago Press, 1978) comprises the two series of Gifford Lectures which Fr. Jaki delivered at the University of Edinburgh in the years 1975 and 1976. Since the foundation of this prestigious lecture series back in 1885, Fr. Jaki is one of only six Americans who have been invited to give them (the others were William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr). He is the first American Catholic to be so honored (European Catholics who have delivered them include Etienne Gilson, Christopher Dawson and Gabriel Marcel), and the first Catholic priest ever to be invited.

The ten lectures which make up the first series deal with the history of scientific thought from the time of the Greeks down to the end of the 19th century; the second series of lectures deal with scientific thought and discovery in the 20th century. The primary theme of the entire volume, based upon an enormously wide command of the primary sources of scientific thought, and showing a remarkable understanding of developments in the history of science, is this principle: that a rational belief in the existence of a Creator, and of an ordered universe which He has created and governs, played a crucial role in the rise of science in Western culture and in all of its great creative advances.

Moreover, Fr. Jaki claims that, whenever in the history of Western philosophy the classic proofs for the existence of God have been radically criticized, and the epistemology which is implied in these proofs has been set aside, the results have been at least potentially disastrous for the cultivation of science. This he shows by an examination of the consequences for scientific thought of the ideas of Francis Bacon and of Descartes in the 17th century; of Hume and Kant in the 18th century; of Mill and Mach in the 19th century; and of the attempts by 20th-century positivists and operationists to legislate for scientific endeavor. This is a part of the book which, for reasons of space, we have been unable to discuss in this review. In fact, in a volume so rich as this in ideas and perspectives on the history of science, it is impossible to do more than to select certain significant developments as illustration of Fr. Jaki's evidence in support of his primary thesis.

First, then, concerning Aristotle's achievement, and why it fell short of what was needed to give the Greeks the proper foundation for empirical investigation of a contingent universe, Fr. Jaki writes:

"Aristotle's way to the pure act ..., Aristotle could not keep consistently pure, that is, transcendent to anything sensory, be it the most perfect sphere of stars. Thus the way to the pure act also empowered the mind to ascertain why the world had to be what it was and why it possessed the structure, laws, and principal features it apparently did. This meant that the mind could acquire basic truths about the physical world without undertaking an extensive program of observations and experimentation. A cosmic intelligibility which could be conquered so easily could hardly be illuminating. The Aristotelian universe was necessary, and so was its form of intelligibility" (p. 25).

And again, summing up in the final chapter, Jaki writes:

"More than any other ancient people, the Greeks were profoundly aware of the rationality of nature... They were the first to construct formal ways to the ultimate in being, and Aristotle even perceived something of that aspect of the contingency of things which was implied in the fact that not all that was possible did in fact exist. But he was unable to extend that contingency to the heavenly regions. As a result, Aristotle could only give a cosmology,. always the fundamental form of science, which was an a priori discourse about the universe. Thus the problem of the failure of ancient Greek science is largely the failure of the Greeks of old to go resolutely one step beyond the prime heavens to a prime mover absolutely superior to it" (p. 320).

A Near Miss

Here is Jaki's judgment on the later development of Greek science, which was linked to the dominant Stoic philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He suggests why it was that Greek science, despite its achievement, did not bring about the creation of a durable scientific enterprise...

"The rise of Stoicism ('for the Stoics the one God was nothing but the one world ...') marks the burning out of that flame of scientific creativity that was alive only for a few generations. Its short duration was possibly the most tantalizing event in intellectual history. The ancient Greeks came far closer than any other culture to formulating a viable science. Without achieving it, they provided some justification for saying that 'thinking about the world in the Greek way' is an 'adequate description of science.' Their glimpse of a viable science was as momentary as their glimpse of the one, eternal, infinite absolute Act. No sooner had the human mind risen to such heights than it slumped back upon itself.''

And then, by an implied contrast with what the Christian centuries possessed and the Greeks did not, Fr. Jaki adds: "Yet, as it turned out, the rise of science needed the broad and persistent sharing by the whole population, that is, an entire culture, of a very specific body of doctrines relating the universe to a universal and absolute intelligibility embodied in the tenet about a personal God, the Creator of all" (p. 33).

The Contribution Of Aquinas

Coming to the Middle Ages, Jaki speaks of the significance of the rational proofs for God's existence found in Aquinas. Although St. Thomas, unlike his mentor Albertus Magnus, was not a scientist, nevertheless, by his rational demonstration of the existence of God, he laid the foundations for the attitude of mind toward nature which made continuing scientific achievement possible. Fr. Jaki writes:

"The important point for the historian of science is that Aquinas gave to a broadly shared rational conviction a concise formulation which had symbolic power. More specifically, the historian of science should keep in mind that the proofs embodied a stance in epistemology which, as further events were to show, contained a directive instinctively obeyed by the scientific movement. About that stance the first main point to be noted is that for Aquinas it is natural for man to be in a cognitive unity with nature" (p. 37). At this point we might consider an issue which comes up repeatedly in Fr. Jaki's account of the history of science—that is, the way in which positivist preconceptions condition historians of science to ignore facts which tell against their own worldview, and against science's alleged support for that view. In other words, one of the chief problems in getting scientific evidence considered fairly is the reluctance of positivists to let it be examined, or to allow it to be seen in a context which faithfully reflects the historical situation in which it occurred.

Thus, for example, George Sarton, a professor at Harvard and one of the best known historians of science in America in the first half of the 20th century, is cited by Jaki for ignoring the creative breakthrough represented by Pierre Duhem's discoveries in the history of science. These would seem to have run counter to the particular views Sarton himself held of the Middle Ages. Fr. Jaki speaks of Sarton's dislike of metaphysics and of the fact that he "was unenthusiastic about the Christian cultural heritage." He points out that Sarton "never probed into the causes of the sudden rise of interest in experimentation during the late Middle Ages, although he extolled the fact itself.

"Nor did he ask why in this case the genius failed to burn out at an early stage. A curious neglect because Sarton seized the opportunity to review the first volume of Pierre Duhem's <Le systeme du monde>, a work that represented a Copernican turn in the historiography of science, but which, like the original Copernican turn, was for long received with silence and unbelief in professional circles, although Duhem did no more than exploit to the full the discovery of Leonardo's notebooks. But Sarton ... was, for the rest of his life, silent on Duhem.

"Clearly Sarton was reluctant to accept Duhem's conclusion that the failure of Greek science was due to the influence of such theological doctrines as the divinity of the heavens and the eternal recurrence of all, an influence which as Duhem intimated, was operative in other ancient cultures as well. Nor could Sarton have been pleased by Duhem's overwhelming documentation of a solid interest in science from the twelfth century onward, and of the support given that interest by the Christian theism of the medievals" (p.13).

A Created Universe

To the layman, one of the most interesting parts of Jaki's book lies in its description of how the great creative scientific discoveries of Planck and Einstein in the 20th century, point toward a universe which is best understood as the creation of a personal God. He writes: "That juggernaut [of agnosticism in contemporary philosophy of science] is of no use against those two gigantic figures, Planck and Einstein, who mark the transition from the inland sea of classical physics to the wide ocean of modern physics. Through their achievement, the world appeared more singular and more coherent than ever. The unfolding of ever deeper layers of the microcosmos and the grasp of ever farther reaches of the macrocosmos continue to be based on the quantum of action and on general relativity respectively. Although both of these theories are often presented as supports of positivism, the physical reality they bear witness to calls for an epistomology irreconcilable with positivist legislation on reality as well as on science.... The coherence displayed by singularity throughout the cosmos witnesses that although that singularity pervades the entire cosmos, it comes to the cosmos from without, from the creative choice of an intellect necessarily acting for a purpose which can, in its specifics, at most be surmised by human intellect" (pp. 322-23).

Nevertheless, neither Planck nor Einstein was willing to go so far as to admit the existence of a creative personal mind responsible for the universe whose objectivity they were discovering. Rather, they took a stand somewhere in between the positivism from which they had come in their youth and the natural theology toward which their discoveries urged them. Their stance was made even more difficult by the fact that the great majority of the historians and philosophers of science were aware of the way in which the discoveries by Planck and Einstein were cracking the foundations of the positivism to which these philosophers were committed. They therefore tried time and again to get Einstein to say that his and Planck's discoveries were not opposed to a positivist view of the universe—but without success. Fr. Jaki's portrays this conflict and its result.

"For all his myopia about the baffling emergence of personal beings with absolute moral values in a radically amoral and apersonal cosmic existence, for all his espousal of the 'religious' tied to his dismissal of religion, ...Einstein the scientist-philosopher is an invaluable witness on behalf of natural theology. A Carnap, a Neurath, a Russell, a Reichenbach, a Bridgman, in sum all the positivists and operationists who have set the tone of philosophy and of philosophy of science for the last half century, were fully aware of the unabashedly metaphysical character of Einstein's science. Some of them begged him—almost put words in his mouth - to state that experimental data were the trigger of his speculations and achievements. He refused to give them any comfort, although aware that in return they were to charge him with what he had called 'being guilty of the original sin of metaphysics.' ... he kept telling them that every true theorist was a tamed metaphysician no matter how pure a positivist he fancied himself ...

"Students and lovers of natural theology reflect with profit on the inability of so many scientists of our times to extricate themselves from the snares of positivism, in spite of the monumental lessons provided by the creative science of Planck and of Einstein. These two, whom Harnack in 1918 had called the two great philosophers of our times, were like all genuine prophets, rejected by their own" (pp. 194-5).

And Max Planck, who denied that he believed "in a personal God, let alone in a Christian God," made this statement of faith to a friend when informed of the execution of his son in late 1944: "What helps me is that I consider it a favor of heaven that since childhood a faith is planted deep in my innermost being, a faith in the Almighty and All-Good not to be shattered by anything. Of course his ways are not our ways, but trust in him helps us through the darkest trials."

To which Fr. Jaki adds this comment: "Planck did not seem to realize that such words were logical only if God was in some mysterious way a personal God, a notion which, even in its vaguest form, was a remnant of Planck's heritage from Christian theism. He never perceived the measure of his debt to that heritage. To the end he waged a spiritual crusade on behalf of a world view distinctly metaphysical and ethical, without seeing that it made logical sense only if the world was the product of a rational, personal Creator, a notion maintained by historic Christianity and from which the republic of science received crucial benefit" (pp. 179-80).

Fr. Jaki sees the history of science as one of the chief battlefields on which will be fought out the conflict for the soul of Western man between Christianity and an increasingly aggressive secularism. By means of an increasing interest in courses in the history of science in the colleges and universities, the interpretations promoted by that history will become more and more a matter of popular acceptance. And the progressive subjection of human life to the effects of technology and scientific invention will add immeasurably to the prestige which science holds for the ordinary man. Whatever science tells men through lessons drawn from the history of science, will seem to many as the final word on the meaning of life and the universe. Fr. Jaki portrays the importance of this conflict:

"Ours is, however, the age in which atheists and agnostics are often superbly versed in the technicalities of science and they are more than eager to bolster their counter-theistic cause by scientific expressions. They have not neglected the history of science either. In their reliance on science and on its history, they know that in the global battle that is waged for minds it will be of decisive tactical importance which side can make a convincing case for having science as a genuine ally" (p. 324).

The Science Of A Contingent Universe

It so happens, as these Gifford Lectures show in abundant and convincing detail, that the teachings of Christianity reinforce the view of the world needed for creative scientific achievement. The world of the unexpected, the unpredictable, which has to be investigated by observation and experiment, because it cannot be known on an a priori basis, whose laws can only be discovered by patience and humility before the facts as they are, is also the world of singularity which proceeds from the decisions of a rational, personal Creator. This is also the world portrayed in the Biblical accounts of God's relationship to man in human history. In fact, the Incarnation, the supreme example of the unexpected, is yet, when seen in its full context, eminently congruous with the Providence of God.

As G. K. Chesterton observed concerning this note of singularity about the physical universe, in a book written in the early 20th century: "All those blind fancies of boyhood ... became suddenly transparent and sane. I was right when I felt that roses were red by some sort of choice: it was the divine choice. I was right when I felt that I would almost rather say that grass was the wrong color than say it must by necessity have been that color: it might verily have been any other" (<Orthodoxy> (1908), p. 145).

It is upon this insight that the attitude required for scientific achievement is based, as Fr. Jaki shows so well in this volume of Gifford Lectures. Let us hear his restatement of that fact in the final chapter of this study of the history of science:

"...unless one sits down as a little child before the facts of science established in its history—prepared to give up preconceived notions about it offered by positivists, idealists, historicists, and agnostics, and ready to retrace in full the actual historical road of science—one will never learn the fundamental truth that real science is the science of a contingent universe" (p. 324).

As to Fr. Stanley L. Jaki himself, it seems that we have here a new star rising in the firmament of outstanding Catholic thinkers and writers of the 20th century. We have become accustomed to hear of an Etienne Gilson in the history of philosophy, of a Christopher Dawson in the history of culture, but most Catholics have not so far heard of Stanley L. Jaki in the history and philosophy of science.

I can only advise that we should make ourselves thoroughly aware of his work and its achievement, practically all of which has been undertaken in the period since the close of Vatican II. We should lay firm hold of the ideas and conclusions which he puts before us, so that we can make an effective defense of the Christian world view against the half-truths about science which the agnostic philosophers of our age have done so much to foist upon us.

From review in <The Wanderer> in 1978.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Spring 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.