Has the Grasp of Science Outstripped its Reach?

Francis J. Caponi on Michael Dodds’s Unlocking Divine Action

Thomas Aquinas, Divine Action, Unlocking Divine Action, Michael Dodd, Francis Coponi, Catholic University of America, medieval theology, science and theology, science and bible
Michael J. Dodds, Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas, The Catholic University of America Press, 2012, 328pp., $55

In Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist NeoDarwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, philosopher Thomas Nagel offers a fairly modest dissent from the reigning reductionism of biological theory:

[I]f we are trying to imagine a secular theory, according to which the historical development of conscious life is fully explained not by intervention but as part of the natural order, there seem to be only two alternatives: either this development itself depends entirely on efficient causation, operating in its later stages through the mechanisms of biological evolution, or there are natural teleological laws governing the development of organization over time…This is a throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature, banished from the scene at the birth of modern science…

Nagel is an atheist and makes it clear that he is speaking of a wholly natural teleology: no designers need apply. Yet the acolytes of atheology have wasted little time in rejecting, and little energy in ridiculing, Nagel’s modest proposal, however softened their barbs might be by faux commiserations for a once great mind overthrown. He is accused of offering aid and comfort to the exponents of Intelligent Design, of believing that the mind provides a secure if somewhat fuzzy access to reality, and of threatening the foundations of the scientific enterprise.

Are we really supposed to abandon a massively successful scientific research program because Nagel finds some scientific claims hard to square with what he thinks is obvious and undeniable, such as his confidence that his clearest moral reasonings are objectively valid?

Michael Dodds, O.P., now makes a decisive and compelling contribution to this swirling controversy, offering a case that implies it is only within theological circles that scientifically-inspired reflections on teleology are likely to receive a fair hearing. Nagel may not care to hear it, but theology may be the only refuge for dissent from scientism.

Dodds sets the stage by articulating three fundamental assumptions. First, critical realism: we can know something true about the world, but not through any approach that claims to be unmediated and unimaginative. Second, the possibility of dialogue between science and theology: not along the lines of the sclerotic fact/value distinction but with an eye to illuminating their potential conflicts and harmonies. Third, the compatibility of revelation and natural reason: there is no fundamental contradiction between truth as discovered by science and as revealed by God. These principles place the minimal sine qua non for avoiding an uneasy and unprofitable apartheid between theological and scientific speculation.

The major arc of Dodds’s book is a narrative of the rise and fall, and rise, of causal explanation. He starts with its broad Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding, through its contraction in modern science down to a thin version of efficient causality, and thence to its current re-expansion in contemporary science. Aristotle offered, and Aquinas adopted, a broad and flexible take on causality, focused on dependence: “those things are called causes upon which things depend for their existence or their coming to be.” An inspiring face, a wise piece of counsel, an electrical charge, a stirring idea, a happy retirement, and a skilled chef can all fit within the analogical scope of causality set up by Aristotle and endorsed by St. Thomas.

The depredations visited by the scientific revolution upon knowledge in general and causality in particular are well known. The revolutionary strategy and unparalleled success of a purely quantitative method traded breadth for depth, contemplation for control. But the grasp of science came to outstrip its reach. Thus arose scientism: a metaphysical outlook which rejects as unreal what science began simply by bracketing as unmeasurable. Of the four causes, only the efficient found a place in modern science since it could be empirically situated and mathematically expressed. Yet even efficient causality was dictated terms. It became univocal: the efficient causality of the energy that moves the atoms.

For many scientists, this univocal understanding of causality is no longer adequate on scientific grounds. Dodds is particularly instructive on the resources offered by contemporary science for the support of richer accounts of causality. From the indeterminate potentiality that Heisenberg found in quantum mechanics; to the formal causality employed in understanding the phenomenon of emergence in cognitive science, biology, chemistry and physics; to the idea of purpose in biology—the new kinds of causality that contemporary science is discovering are strikingly reminiscent of those found in the philosophies of Aristotle and Aquinas. Especially well taken is Dodds’s observation that although contemporary science is emerging from the Newtonian causal straitjacket, a number of Christian theologians are still trapped in it. I have found something like it in both Hans Küng’s The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion and Stanley Grenz’s Theology for the Community of God.

The virtues of Unlocking Divine Action are many, not least of all its felicity of expression, clarity of structure and argument, and welcome use of texts beyond the great Summae. Drawbacks, minor though they are, can be found as well. Chief among these is the overabundance of direct quotations, some quite lengthy, from multiple sources, all in aid of the same point. A touch of synthesis would not have gone amiss.

The only major objection I would raise concerns miracles, which Dodd recognizes as the fundamental issue that jumpstarted the discussion of divine action in contemporary theology. Dodds does a fine job clarifying St. Thomas’s position that miracles are divine acts that take place outside of the natural order rather than in violation of it. A great deal would have been gained, however, by even a brief application of Thomas’s ideas, along with the new causality of science, to some specific instances. Are the Incarnation and Resurrection miracles? Dodds cites the view of others (Swinburne, Russell), but never declares himself on the question. He is also surprisingly unhelpful on the question of why life-enhancing miracles—since they possess no sharp, invasive edges that leave the gristle (or gossamer) of natural causality in tatters—are not offered more frequently by a God bent on human well-being. Finally, consider the multiplication of the loaves and fish. On the one hand, since scripture proposes no theory about it (Christ exerts control over quantum events, or causes atoms to coalesce, or teleports the contents of some distant market stalls), we may certainly agree that the question of whether natural laws are violated is not the primary issue. Likewise, no claims are made about the product itself that would demand a special scientific accounting (e.g., that the bread was abnormally nutritious or resistant to becoming stale, or the fish were of a type and size utterly unknown in that region). On the other hand, the claim that more matter results from the action of Christ is intrinsic to the story. Were some of the apostles of a mind to perform a before-and-after weigh in (and this would certainly be to miss the larger point of the miracle), the leftovers alone would register as a great deal heavier than what was on hand at the start—just as one would expect in any sort of multiplication of normal material objects. I have always wondered if this effect does not in some way come up against the conservation of matter/energy. My sense is that since no secondary causality is posited, it is impossible to say. But on this, as on other scriptural wonders, I had hoped Dodds would cast more Thomistic light.