Father Stanley Jaki and the Birth of Science

creation, creator, creature, genesis

The governor of Wisconsin excitedly announced the theme of this year’s holiday tree: “Celebrate Science.” In a letter to schools, he asked students to make ornaments “showcasing science in Wisconsin.” He added: “Science is so critically important to understanding and appreciating the world around us and each other. ”

I wonder if he has ever read the works of Father Stanley Jaki. A man of theology and science, Jaki contends that the Incarnation is critical to the birth of science. It is because of Christmas that we can celebrate science.

Some claim it was easy for scientists of the past to remain Christian. The field was still in its infancy. Knowing all that we know now makes it almost impossible for present-day scientists to believe in God. How, then, to explain Father Jaki? He is a contemporary who died only a decade ago.

Jaki was born in Hungaria, where he became a Benedictine.  He later moved to the United States. Father Jaki earned doctorates in both physics and theology.

Catholic Exchange sums up what many websites say about him:

Jaki was a prolific writer, authoring dozens of books, articles, and essays covering everything from the metaphysics of the Eucharist, to the primacy of the Apostle Peter, to exactly where and how Charles Darwin went woefully wrong. In short, Father Jaki was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and his contributions to Catholic thought and culture will be difficult to quantify.

A major contribution of Father Jaki is his study of science and history.  While giving credit to great advances in science occurring in non-Christian civilizations, he calls them “stillbirths.” Dr. Stacy Trasancos, author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, and Editor Emeritus of Catholic Stand, explains his use of this term:

The birth of science represents the emergence of exact science as a universal discipline where one discovery leads to another, and laws of physics and systems of laws were established. The stillbirths refer to the potential within other ancient cultures to achieve this emergence, but a failure to make the breakthrough.

What is it about Christianity that made it different? According to Theoretical Particle Physicist Stephen M. Barr:

Into that cosmic fatalism burst the Christian revelation, which speaks of the unique and unrepeatable event of the Incarnation. Biblical time has a beginning and a direction so that every event had real causes and real consequences. The world is thus dynamic, and its dynamics can be studied.

He adds:

In creation ex nihilo, with a creator who is good, the universe itself must be good and therefore worth investigating. As the creator is the logos, the universe is intelligible and therefore capable of being investigated” and human beings, made in the image of the creator, are intelligent and capable of investigating it.

An ordered world can be studied. As God’s creation, it is worth studying. Made in the image and likeness of God, we are capable of studying the world. Other religions fail on one or another of these points.

To better understand Father Jaki’s thinking, I highly recommend Dr. Trasancos’ book. Barr’s article at First Things is also clarifying.

Father Jaki spent a significant part of his life speaking and writing about the importance of Christianity to science. He clearly thought it was an important subject. What motivated him?

Anne Barbeau Gardiner knew him personally. She wrote about him in New Oxford Review.  Anne reports:

As he grew, he said he longed “to understand, propagate, and defend my Roman Catholic religion, which, on the intellectual level, is a set of propositions with enormously wide ramifications. Indeed there is no theology so wide in its scope and reach as Catholic theology.”

He also understood the importance of being faithful to truth rather than personal gain. In his words:

A Catholic intellectual should not have for his or her prime objective the gaining of the applause of secular academics. The latter are interested only in Catholics in whom they can spot real or potential traitors to Truth. If only such Catholics suspected the value of enduring riches which they barter for very transient handouts! I mean intellectual riches, valid very much even for science.

To be motivated to serve God means understanding the importance of love. In accepting the Templeton Prize, he beautifully said:

Hunger for true love — heroic, self-sacrificing love — remains humankind’s basic hunger. Acknowledgment of this comes on occasion even from those who earned their fame (often their fortunes, too) by preaching salvation through science. When Bertrand Russell stated at Columbia University in 1950 that Christian love or compassion was the thing most needed by modern humans, he moved revealingly close to declaring intellectual bankruptcy on his and many others’ behalf. He said much more about Christian love. Although fully familiar with the enormous power of modern science, medicine and technology, he held high Christian love as the answer to human needs in the broadest sense: “If you have Christian love,” he declared to a stunned audience, “you have motive for existence, a guide for action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty.”

He closes by discussing progress. Jaki states that progress will come about only if humankind “will muster more willingness to bow to God.”

He concludes:

A bow, if it is more than a mere ritual, is always an act of humility. But so is love which seeks not its own, broods not over injuries, and always rejoices with the truth (I Cor. 13:5-6). This tremendous insight into the very depth of love comes from a perception about God ready to empty himself and take the form of a slave (Phil. 2:6-7). For such is the only love that never turns into a slavery, emotional or other. It is in that love that religion completes all the progress it is capable of. It has already done so on countless occasions, long before the advent of science, and will keep providing the only means whereby science may act not as a curse but as a blessing.

In this age of science, and in coming times to be increasingly more scientific, no claim may be more startling than the one that love rooted in religion would be around long after all science is gone. Long before science had arrived, religion also foresaw a stage where even faith and hope would cease by finding their completion in love. That stage will consist in knowing God as he is. Such is the deepest aspect of the true harmony between intellectual honesty and Christian love, between science and religion, and also the crowning phase of their progress.

I have read several stories about people turning from God when they go to college. Then I read about people like Father Jaki. His motivation for his work was his love of God as well as his love of science. His goal was “to give Catholics the weapons with which to counter secular materialism and promote the Catholic faith.”

Many websites report Jaki as saying “One has only one choice: to fight.” In my great dislike of controversy, this gives me something to think about.

In fact, much of what he writes gives me food for thought. He used his gift of intelligence to lead others to holiness. How might I use any gifts God gave me toward the same goal?

As we look to the coming of Jesus during this Advent season, consider that the birth of our Savior ultimately led to the birth of science.

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9 thoughts on “Father Stanley Jaki and the Birth of Science”

  1. It is clearly interesting that Astrophysacists of today, have come to understand that the “proof” of scientific discovery is extremely hard to quantify. They point out that the numbers system itself is extremely abstract. We use 10 because it is easy but none the less abstract. Some in mind and brain science as well as astrophysics are using numbers systems based on prime numbers to gain a little more understanding of truth. I am using a numbers system based on 2 as I type. So the scientific method of hypotheses, observation, quanitation and prove of correct or incorrect is what Fr. Jaki seems to have been talking about. Science is a discipline that will always need growth and updating. Perhaps this is what religion should learn from science that doctrine is only as good as the human thinker. Neither scienctist nor theologian should be fearful of updating when new understandings occur.

  2. Okay, Bob. Thanks for demonstrating your employment of the tu quoque fallacy in your second response to me instead of owning up to what you did in falsely mischaracterizing Fr. Jaki’s position on science, and also mentioning one of his primary inspirations in the uncharitable manner in which you chose to make this known. Sadly, you still don’t acknowledge that your initial post does indeed lack grace and charity toward Fr. Jaki in a way that I have correctly pointed out and explained why. I would also apply this assessment to anyone else who commented as you did toward Fr. Jaki in response to an article about some other person’s work. There is of course a time and place to mention supporting sources, but it remains very uncharitable the way you mentioned the inspiration for Fr. Jaki while commenting on a piece praising his work alone; NOT the work of others in the process.

    But you just had to make that known, right? You just had to chip away at some of Fr. Jaki’s own creativity in the process by mentioning an inspiration for him so we don’t risk anybody giving Fr. Jaki too much credit, right?

    Also no excuse because of some habit in citing sources that, somewhat ironically, is of course not limited to only scientific papers.
    And I will stick with my characterization of Fr. Jaki’s approach to science and quantities since you seem to go back and forth on this, first criticizing, then agreeing, then criticizing again. A key point here, and one that Fr. Jaki devoted much of his work to, is that one can easily fall into the trap of losing the necessary distinction between metaphysics and physics or all other sciences if one plays loose with the reality of the material world and the inherent quantification within it. I hope the reading that has “modified” your views has not taken you down into that destructive rabbit hole of mixing up some metaphysics with physics, but if so, perhaps this has provided you with some of the motivation to try to diminish some of the work of Fr. Jaki in this regard despite also praising some of his work in other related matters. It will be much better for you to work your way out of such a rabbit hole (if in it) by following the lead of Fr. Jaki yet again. Good luck.

    Lastly, I do agree with you about uncharitable comments…by you toward Fr. Jaki, and my comments in response. 🙂
    God Bless!

  3. Probably the best book written about Fr. Jaki’s thought is the second edition of Fr. Paul Haffner’s “Creation and Scientific Creativity: A study in the thought of S.L. Jaki,” which was published in 2009, the year of Fr. Jaki’s death. But from the proverbial horse’s mouth, Fr. Jaki’s own autobiography entitled “A Mind’s Matter: An Intellectual Autobiography” (2002) provides insights into Jaki’s thought from the author of those thoughts.

    With respect to Bob Kurland’s comments, the reference to Duhem is unfortunate because it looks like he (Kurland) is diminishing Fr. Jaki’s enormous volume of work in his own right. Fr. Jaki didn’t simply parrot the work of Duhem, so it leaves one to wonder why Kurland makes this comment by declaring that Fr. Jaki’s building on the works of Duhem should be kept in mind. It’s a good thing to know, but why must it be kept in mind? What purpose does it serve in this forum?

    More importantly, Bob Kurland has misstated Fr. Jaki’s emphasis regarding the quantitative aspect of science. Fr. Jaki NEVER EXCLUDES other sciences as Kurland wrongly accuses him of doing. Instead, Fr. Jaki frequently pointed out what became more and more obvious to him over time, and this assessment of Fr. Jaki’s also ties in with his superb understanding of the exact sciences being wholly different than metaphysics. Speaking in 1996, Fr. Jaki writes the following:
    “Scientific context, insofar as it is strictly scientific, means no more and no less than the quantitative analysis of the quantitative aspect of things and their quantitative applications. This is what all scientists do as they try to bring their fields closer and closer to the exactness of physics. Beyond this strictly-defined sense, the meaning of scientific context is much more philosophical than scientific.” (P. 51 of “Lectures in the Vatican Gardens”)

    Note from the above statement how Fr. Jaki refers to all scientists and their fields of study. Obviously there is an acceptance of these fields by Fr. Jaki contrary to what Bob Kurland has proclaimed. And because we are limited beings that reside in a limited dimensional world, quantitative measurements are indeed part of the scientific endeavor in all fields of science. Observations also entail quantitative realities.

    And to be sure, the sciences mentioned by Bob Kurland (Biology and Geology) do indeed feature quantities in developing their particular studies. For a simple example in this regard, consider what a doctor does in treating human biology. Have you ever gone in for a complete check-up and not have tests done that relay quantitative aspects of what’s going on in your personal biology? I didn’t think so. Neither have I and I suspect neither has Bob Kurland.

    The insight of Fr. Jaki regarding the reality of quantity in all sciences should be better appreciated and not misstated.

    1. Mike, I apologize if I have given the impression that I denigrate Fr. Jaki’s work. He is one of my heroes, and I have quoted him many times in my web-books and blog posts.
      However it is the case (and he has acknowledged it in his biography of Pierre Duhem, “Scientist and Catholic: Pierre Duhem”) that it was Duhem who broke ground in showing how the Catholic Church was the midwife and nursemaid for science in the Middle Ages. And this is not always acknowledged by those who write about Fr. Jaki.
      Moreover, I believe my comments about Fr. Jaki’s emphasis on science as a quantitative, numerical enterprise are justified (and I agree with him to an extent). Here are some quotes from his excellent essay, “The Limits of a Limitless Science:”

      “Science, in that sense, is synonymous with measurements,
      which are accurate because they can be expressed in numbers.”

      He quotes Lord Kelvin in that essay:

      ” ‘I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unscientific kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be. ‘ “

      and again

      “Science is competent wherever and whenever the object of investigation offers a
      quantitatively determinable aspect.”

      And there are many other such quotes.
      I believe Fr. Jaki’s objective in this essay was not to denigrate the less quantitative, the so-called historical sciences, but to show that applying sciences to some disciplines (e.g. sociology) was not appropriate. And I second him in that goal.

    1. CC, you’re doing a strawman thing again… The Church did indeed remove those books. It took some time but two centuries to a Church grounded in eternity are not a big deal. Moreover, whatever the faults of the Church with Galileo’s case (and much has been written about it to contradict the notion of the Church as the persecuter of science), that does not vitiate the Church’s role as the midwife and nursemaid of science in the Middle Ages.

  4. Thank you for this article Janet. It’s a good exposition on the work of Fr. Jaki. Stacy Trasancos has written a good book on this, “Science Was Born of Christianity, the Teaching of Fr. Stanley Jaki” (see here:
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19370535-science-was-born-of-christianity )
    One thing that should be kept in mind. Fr. Jaki himself built on the works of the French physicist and philosopher, Pierre Duhem. Also, Fr. Jaki’s definition of science was perhaps too exclusive; he took only those efforts that could be quantified to be scientific, which would exclude the so-called historical sciences: biology, geology,…

    1. Thanks for your response to my comments about Fr. Jaki and your initial post. Compare what you have written in response to my post to what you set forth in your initial post, and you will see a difference in your attitude toward Fr. Jaki and his rightful emphasis on the quantitative aspect of science as opposed to your “…Fr. Jaki’s definition of science was perhaps too exclusive.” Moreover, I still don’t believe it was necessary or even a charitable thing to do to point out in this forum reviewing the work of Fr. Jaki that it should be kept in mind that Fr. Jaki used Pierre Duhem’s work as a launching pad for much of his own work. So what? He never denied this, and he readily gave credit to Duhem where it was due. If others have not made this known as you believe they should (debatable), that’s on them.
      Anybody who takes up some of the scientifically-related works of Fr. Jaki will be able to see the connection with Duhem and the honor paid to him by Fr. Jaki (including a book on Duhem by Fr. Jaki), so there was no need for you to point out this connection, and in doing so, you do diminish some of Fr. Jaki’s work since you basically insist that the Duhem connection needs to be kept in mind when considering the work of Fr. Jaki. It’s kinda like somebody giving an award to Fr. Jaki at a ceremony, and you jump on the platform to advise all in attendance that Fr. Jaki owes much of his award to Pierre Duhem. Unnecessary and uncharitable.

      God Bless

    2. Mr. Thomas, I don’t regard your response to my comments as entirely gracious, but I guess that’s to be expected on the blogosphere. But that attitude aside, let me repeat:
      1) The quotes cited showed, I believe, that Fr. Jaki regarded science as an enterprise that requires quantification. I don’t think this is a grievous fault, but I pointed it out since many scientists and philosophers of science don’t hold with that requirement. I myself as a physicist held to Jaki’s requirement until a few years ago. but after quite a bit of reading in the philosophy and history of science have modified that view.
      2) Maybe it’s just a habit I have in scientific papers and blog posts I’ve written, that one cites work done previously and gives background material (maybe not back to Galileo and Newton). I’m sorry if that seems to you like

      “t’s kinda like somebody giving an award to Fr. Jaki at a ceremony, and you jump on the platform to advise all in attendance that Fr. Jaki owes much of his award to Pierre Duhem. Unnecessary and uncharitable.”

      Perhaps “uncharitable” might be applied to comments about comments also.

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