This column is dedicated to the relationship between faith and science. As you would expect, its modal habit is to look at scientific discoveries and suggest how the progress of science need be no enemy to faith, and indeed can sometimes give it stout support. The Pope Emeritus spoke in 2012 of the “urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man”.
So today I want to examine the basis of that relationship and think about how it works out in practice. First, I want to look at reductionism which, in this context, explains phenomena to such a depth that there is simply no room for spirit: matter and the causality of matter explain all.
The example most readily to hand is evolution. While there is much still to understand, there is really no argument (outside the merry band of flat-earthers) that evolution is the major factor in bringing about the material world that we experience. The picture of God creating the world by a series of fiats is anthropomorphic. Equally anthropomorphic is the problem we may have in grasping that the random processes of evolution are possible to God. We must accept that the relationship between God and his creation is opaque to us; we must speak in metaphors. We need only to remember that every iota of creation exists from moment to moment by the active will of God.
The second topic is harder to tackle, but thankfully Revelation helps us. I speak of the human brain. In this column I have written at some length about the growth in our knowledge of the human brain. The outcome of this is that some of the best minds in the field have come to the conclusion that all the functions of the mind can be explained in material terms. While they have not all been demonstrated as yet, enough is known to infer that the remainder will confirm this provisional conclusion. So for example the hypothesis of free will is unnecessary.
Take, for instance, our inclination to religion. Our tendency to be attracted to a religion is, so the studies of identical twins tell us, about 40 per cent genetic – the same, by no coincidence, as our inclination to conformity. It is easy to understand that primitive human societies required most of their members to conform. While some non-conformists might succeed as leaders, most would have been destroyed. So the majority survived to transmit their conformist genes.
A powerful means of encouraging conformity is religion. Not only can the society’s shamans ensure obedience through their contacts with the preternatural but the omnipresence of the higher power can monitor us when we are alone. Religion needs a story. We have the Christian one.
This account of the origins of religion is speculative but plausible. Let us suppose for a moment that it is actually true. Why would we have problems in accepting that God prepared us at the natural level to accept a supernatural power, so that in course of time we would accept his Son – and be guided to do so via the biological senses and the inbuilt faculties of the brain?
We need to take seriously that the infusion of our biology by the creative spirit of God results in a single organism; it is this that is the image and likeness of God. So we are called.
So we are redeemed. So we will rise again. Everything that happens in the “soul” happens in the “body”.
Here is a practical example. The development of habits involves the firing patterns of neurons in the basal ganglia (and you can’t get more biological than that). But Aquinas defines virtue as “a habit by which we live righteously, one that makes its possessor good, and his work good likewise”. Now the development of the virtues is the high road to our imitation of Christ. So let’s take a strong example: Our Lady is full of virtue, and were we able to examine the basal ganglia in her resurrected brain we should find the biological correlate of her love of her son.
But it would be foolish to presume that a biological correlate gives us the whole story or, in such a case, the important part of the story. Our Lady’s habit of virtue finds its essence in the free choice of her will inspired by the mystery of divine grace. The same is true of us (albeit at a considerably lower level) whenever we aspire to practise and develop virtue. That the wonder of this should be complemented in our bodies is the way God chose us to be.
It is no surprise that the scientists are unable to find hard evidence of free will, or to explain moral obligation. Nor is it a surprise that they cannot check their minds from thinking that they have free will and declaring that they have moral values. They are ensouled bodies, too: the spirit escapes the microscope.
There is irony here. The more confidently they argue the absence of free will and the fundamental origin of morality the more they unconsciously witness to the Spirit of God which alone can explain these things.
I will return in due course to a closer examination of behaviour which we do not immediately recognise as virtues, but which are in fact practical implementation of the cardinal virtues. As you would expect, such virtues have one foot in good psychology, and the other in good theology.