“On Faith and Reason”
Selection from Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “Thomism for the New Evangelization”
Perhaps you have had some exposure to the New Atheism. (It’s crude. We need a better class of atheists.) But if you get into the New Atheism, and look at the blogosphere, what you see is the nineteenth-century presupposition from Auguste Comte, namely that modern science gradually displaces religion. The children of antiquity believe in religion, the adolescents of the middle ages study philosophy, and the grown-ups of modernity believe in biology and physics. This view of human thought is literally incredible. Philosophical and religious questions are part of the basic structure of human experience in every age, and are never out of date. If they were, than being human itself would somehow become out of date. However, there are two neuralgic issues that the modern scientific revolution poses for Catholic theology. One concerns Big Bang cosmology and whether the story that cosmologists tell us about the origins of the universe has somehow displaced the Genesis narrative regarding creation ex nihilo. The second is, of course, evolution and the question of the origins of man. St. Thomas is very important here for two reasons.
First, St. Thomas’s fundamental distinction between primary causality and secondary causality. What does God give to creation? He gives it existence and being, so that anything we discover in the world scientifically is something that exists. If it’s real, if we’ve discovered it to be real, it has being. And if it has being, it has a giver of being. God’s giving things being doesn’t entail making then merely passive; rather, part of the dignity of creatures is that they are created in such a way as to be themselves true causes. This is the case both in the physical order and in the spiritual order. There is not an opposition between God causing something natural to exist, and that created reality having its own history and development as a true, physical cause. And there is not an opposition between God causing something personal to exist, and that reality having its own history and development as a free spiritual cause. God has caused human beings to be and has given us a nature that is rational and free. So we’re free because God actively causes us to be creatures who are free. But likewise with the whole physical universe: God has caused the universe to be a universe of causes. So the idea that you can have a confrontation between what you discover in the domain of causality through the sciences and what God has given in creation is an absurdity. There’s no conflict because everything that you discover in the world—in the web of physical, chemical, and biological causes—is what God has given being and so has given to be causes of other things in the created order. Understood this way, there is no opposition between the doctrine of creation ex nihilo and modern Big Bang cosmology. They examine the same reality from two different, non-competitive perspectives.
Second: Aquinas teaches that the human person has a spiritual soul created directly by God, but that the soul is the form of the body, so that we are one substance. This can be contrasted with the teaching of René Descartes, who affirms that the spiritual soul is a distinct substance from the body, as if you and I were two things, a spirit who is accidentally connected to a machine. (Descartes improbably affirms that the two are connected at the pineal gland.) As the Catholic Church has taught and as Aquinas argues philosophically, we are just one being—body and soul—a spiritual animal in which the spiritual soul informs the body. But this idea has repercussions for our theory of noetics (how we know things). We know all the realities we encounter (including ourselves) through the medium our senses. We therefore also know things through our brain, which serves as a physical organ underlying sense experiences. We know about objects in part through our sense memory, suggesting brain patterns for recognition and imagination. In short, we know stuff as animals know stuff. Think of how you throw a ball and the dog knows where the ball went. He finds a way through the fence, finds the ball and brings it back, remembering how to play the game. Sense data and memory are at work, grounded in the physical organ of the brain. We often work that way too, remembering where we put the coffee cup, or something else, like the keys to the car. So we work a lot through animal instincts, memory, and senses, and that animal capacity in us could have developed through a long evolutionary process. There seems to be excellent evidence that it did.
Here’s the important point: what science by its very nature can never talk about competently is the philosophical question of the immaterial soul. There was a passage from very developed hominids to the first human beings. This is the passage from hominids having very sophisticated sense memory and hand-eye coordination, or guttural sound capacities, to the formulation of abstract concepts, reasonable deliberation, human freedom, intelligible language, and the human arts. And that passage is not one that you can find under an electron microscope, because what’s new when you encounter rational human nature per se is the spiritual soul, which entails more than sensation. It also entails rational intellect and voluntary free will. And that means conceptuality and universal denotations in language, that means free action and moral responsibility, that means religion and ritual, that means games and arts, that means marriage. It means a whole lot of things that are specifically human. And you’re not going to be able to see it through the medium of the modern sciences. You can infer it somewhat paleontologically, because you can see that the physical culture of homo sapiens started humanizing progressively; you can see cave art and the use of language and complex tools. If you start to get these two principles right in Aquinas—primary causality and secondary causality and the soul as form of the body, but as a new presence of something in a rational animal—that’s the beginning of unknotting all the false oppositions between the Bible and modern science. And with those two tools from St. Thomas, with some work, you can actually show that there are no profound conflicts between Scripture and the modern scientific world-view.