St. Bonaventure described in his essay “The Mind’s Road to God,” a proto-scientific process for the acquisition of knowledge about the natural world. He explained how we can know God from creation. A child playing outside, for instance, can pick up a leaf and study it, and by doing so, he takes in the “macrocosm” of the world into the “microcosm” of his soul through his senses. This activity is akin to science class for elementary-aged children. They study objects with their senses.
The senses, St. Bonaventure wrote, are like doors through which external realities are apprehended and judged in the mind. In the child’s awe and wonder, he may contemplate God through and in sensible objects by appreciating their beauty, proportion, and symmetry, not just in the leaf, but in the whole tree, in the whole forest. If you tell a child that God made the big, wide world, he’ll believe it, not because he’s gullible, but because that truth resonates with his experiences.
This journey to see God in the created world described by St. Bonaventure in the thirteenth century can be expanded into modern science. Actually, the path is similar to a scientist’s education. To follow the path shows how a scientist sees God and why a scientist should never set aside his faith to practice science.
When that same child is older, in junior high perhaps, he may deepen his observational skills a step further by studying those leaves under a microscope. The magnification will allow him to observe deeper proportion and symmetry, and hence deeper beauty, than the unaided eye could appreciate on a single leaf. The apprehension and judgment that inspire him to contemplate God is likewise deepened.
When the young man studies science in high school, however, his learning begins to become abstracted from his senses. He is taught fiduciary knowledge gained by scientists who lived before him. He accepts and trusts what his teacher imparts; she is an authority who teaches what her authorities taught her. What he observes now is not a leaf though. It is a diagram of chemical reactions that were discovered with mathematics and models, abstractions that saved appearances, so to speak.
Photosynthesis, to give an example, was discovered in steps, first by observing sensible changes. It was observed that the mass of the soil changed little as the plant grew in it. It was observed that a candle would burn under a jar if a plant were under there with the candle. It was observed that sunlight could revive a wilted plant. Then scientists deduced and induced the chemical reactions of photosynthesis. Such acquisitions of knowledge required abstraction from physical observation with the unaided eye or even the eye aided by a microscope. Ultimately, math and explanatory modeling were required to determine the complex reactions of the electron transfer chain, the reactions of the photolysis of water, the complexity of the Calvin cycle, and the thermodynamics involved in the cells of plants.
Where the microscope goes deeper into what the eye can observe, mathematics, computational instrumentation, and analytical models are like nets that can cast even deeper to realities that cannot be directly observed even with magnification. The nets are not complete, of course, and only touch on points and tie some of them together as relationships, but as far as they are used to “observe” objective reality, they allow a more complete knowledge of nature to be apprehended, cycle upon cycle at minute and grand scales, proportion and symmetry almost unimaginable. Such depth of knowledge allows an expanded awe and wonder, a greater appreciation for the handiwork of God.
When the grown man becomes a scientist ready to add new knowledge to the understanding of the natural world, he must rely on observations made both concretely and abstractly, a constant interplay of standing with his feet firmly on the ground while casting the net into the unknown and testing what it catches to push the limits deeper. In this constant casting, he discovers profound proportion and symmetry unlike anything the senses could imagine, for the proportions and symmetries belong to the intellect and allow him, who is made in the image and likeness of God, to “see” God better so he can love God more.
Should the practicing scientist cease to acknowledge that he is apprehending the “macrocosm” into the “microcosm” of his soul to judge and discover beauty, he risks letting go of the fundamental assumption that his analytical equipment and computations allow him to observe objective, external reality. Such a disconnect would render the awe and wonder he sought in his childhood an empty search for strange fictions with no grounding in reality at all.
There’s a lesson for parents here too. Tell your children unequivocally that they should never set aside their faith to practice science. They are the future, and we’re going to need scientists who, faithful to their Maker, remain sanely in touch with reality.