“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.” St. John Paul II, Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.
The spur for this post is, of course, the rumor that Pope Francis is about to issue an encyclical proposing that we in the Church get on the AGW bandwagon (Anthropic Global Warming). My views on AGW are given in a post on my blog, Scientific Integrity: Lessons from Climategate), so I don’t propose to debate that issue extensively here. Rather, I should like to put a more general question: What science should the Church pronounce as correct, and which should be left to the scientists?
SAINT JOHN PAUL II’S INTERACTION WITH SCIENCE
The Church’s error in condemning Galileo was recognized by St. John Paul II, who made an apology and an explanation of the error. (This was just one of St John Paul II’s efforts to effect a rapprochement of the Church with science. ) A lesson to be learned here is that there need be no conflict between the teachings of the Church and science even though the Church should be knowledgeable about science that relates to ethical and moral issues intrinsic to Church teaching.
The ideal of Church/Science interaction is illustrated by St. John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on evolution:
“…some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis….What is the significance of a theory such as this one? To open this question is to enter into the field of epistemology. A theory is a meta-scientific elaboration, which is distinct from, but in harmony with, the results of observation. With the help of such a theory a group of data and independent facts can be related to one another and interpreted in one comprehensive explanation. The theory proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts; when it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised [emphasis added]
…And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. [emphasis added] The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved. There are materialist and reductionist theories, as well as spiritualist theories. Here the final judgment is within the competence of philosophy and, beyond that, of theology.
The magisterium of the Church takes a direct interest in the question of evolution, because it touches on the conception of man, whom Revelation tells us is created in the image and likeness of God. [emphasis added]… In other words, the human person cannot be subordinated as a means to an end, or as an instrument of either the species or the society; he has a value of his own. He is a person. By this intelligence and his will, he is capable of entering into relationship, of communion, of solidarity, of the gift of himself to others like himself… if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides non retimere iubet”). (Humani Generis)
As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person. [emphasis added]. St. John Paul II, Message to Pontifical Academy of Science, 22 Oct. 1996.
What a fine example! St. John Paul II shows that he knows what science is about, that it requires empirical confirmation of hypotheses. Unlike many scientists, he distinguishes the scientific fact of evolution, the descent of species, from theories/mechanisms used to explain evolution (e.g. the neo-Darwinian model). And most important, he shows why and how the Church should be concerned with theories that impinge on its teachings. We cannot accept theories which “regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter”.
WHEN THE CHURCH SHOULD NOT PRONOUNCE ON SCIENCE
- First, it is not true that a “97% consensus” of scientists support the AGW / Climate Change proposition. See, for example the 97% myth. And in any case, scientific theories and propositions are not judged by majority vote, but by empirical confirmation. Before the Michelson-Morley experiment a majority of scientists believed in the ether as the medium for propagation of electromagnetic waves; afterwards, not many.
- Second, the extent of data massaging (“fudging”) revealed in the Climategate excerpts and (more recently) of fiddled temperature data from Paraguayan weather stations should cause one to regard reported temperature increases with more than usual skepticism.
- rising food costs for third world populations due to diversion to biofuels;
- replacement of rain forest by palm tree groves for biofuels;
- the loss of jobs by coal miners and utility plant workers;
- the risk of pollution by elements used in wind turbines and hybrid automobile batteries (there is a greater carbon footprint from mining lithium and shipping batteries than in the corresponding use of gas fuels);
- the despoilation of landscapes and loss in property values due to wind turbines;
- the decimation of migrant bird and bat populations by wind turbines;
HOW THE CHURCH SHOULD DEAL WITH SCIENCE
Climate Change: The Facts. A collection of articles by various authors including Delingpole, Lindzen, Watts.
BioMedicine and Beatitude; an Introduction to Catholic Bioethics. Nicanor Austriaco, OP