How A Scientist Sees God in Nature

Stacy Trasancos

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.

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15 thoughts on “How A Scientist Sees God in Nature”

  1. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: "Saints Peter and Paul" | St. John

  2. Tell your children…that should never set aside their faith to practice science

    Since I don’t identify as a person of faith I’m intrigued by your advice above. I really am. It makes me wonder if a scientific trial could be constructed to explore a few things. Take two pathologists for instance, one having faith and another faith-free. I wonder if a faith-pathologist could produce better results than a scientist who was faith free.

    If it could be shown that faith-pathologists were better than their counterparts at detecting dirty margins left in cancerous tissue excisions, I would be hard pressed not to seek out their superior skills.

    We can extrapolate this example, of course, and fit it to any variety of science based professions. It seems to me if faith was known to enhance the skills of a scientist it would be taught in medical schools. I would definitely seek out a faith based doctor if it could be shown that faith free scientists are disadvantaged in ways that directly affect clinical outcomes.

    Mike

    1. Sure. I’m sure an experiment could be devised that might provide all sorts of data. We could compare the Vatican’s tally for cures at Lourdes (150yrs worth) versus one month of data from say, Children’s Hospital in Seattle?

      But to be fair, I think the terms saint and atheist refer most accurately to people, not buildings, don’t you? If you don’t mind, I’d like to stick with my original suggestion for an experiment. How can we know that a faith-pathologist would perform better than a faith-free pathologist?

      If we knew how (and assuming faith-pathologists would perform better) I would be among the first to champion the cause for teaching faith in medical schools. I really would.

      Let’s help each other understand one another here. Much good, if you’re right, could be riding on this.

      Mike

    2. Are you asking in good faith or bad faith? You started with, “I don’t identify as a person of faith.” To be honest, you don’t seem sincere. You seem to think having faith is akin to being in a coma or something.

    3. Stacy, if you question my sincerity what answer could I possibly give to recoup the benefit of your doubt?

      May I suggest we keep this focused on claims and questions rather than me personally? If you my claims and questions are of interest then feel free to focus on them. If they aren’t of any interest I won’t take offense if you choose not to reply.

      Mike

  3. Pingback: This Week's Best in Catholic Apologetics | DavidLGray.INFO

  4. Wonderful article Stacy! You really make us think about the connection between science and faith. Have you thought of teaching at a Catholic University? I mean you know in your spare time when you’re not raising a family! 🙂 By the way I love the new look of the website, and the font is just wonderful. It is much easier to read. God bless.

    1. David, you are always so encouraging! Thank you. You know what? As a matter of fact I just signed and emailed a contract to teach a chemistry course online (which means I can do it from home) for Holy Apostles College and Seminary this fall. I never thought I’d be doing that, and I’m so excited. God is good!

    2. Sooo cool! Yes He is good. Sometimes He takes us places we would have not imagined. Wishing you all the best.

    3. Stacy, in some way, shape, or form, you’re going to have to share what the experience is like to be teaching online. I, for one, would love to read something like that.

      Tell your children unequivocally that they should never set aside their faith to practice science

      I really like this advice. Because it forces us to think about what faith and reason are and aren’t, and whether they are separable from each other (and what consequences follow). In any advice to the contrary of yours, there are implicit assumptions that faith and reason– and faith and science– are always mutually opposed. But is that really true? What do we also think that faith is, if we automatically think that reason is contrary to it? …and as you’ve raised the issue yourself in your blog posts and in your own work, what do we mean by “science,” and where does it come from?

      These two paragraphs are so beautifully and profoundly written:

      “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.”

      I do wonder if we generally– scientist or not– often don’t do the same humble and awed probing with God, because we often don’t have any sense of Mystery– and any sense of entering into it. To enter into the Sacred Mysteries also requires observations made concretely and abstractly, and learning to be unafraid to “cast out into the deep” (as a matter of fact, your article could’ve been titled “Cast Out into the Deep: How a Scientist Sees God in Nature”). Doing so tests our limited, often immature understanding of God, and it enables faith to grow.

      A lot of the times, our children and Catholic young people don’t even have a mature faith, or any sense that it means living it with all of themselves, brains and intellect included, whereby the decision to either embrace or reject Catholicism tends to follow the simple narrative of “kids go to college and lose their faith.” While nobody should force them to stay Catholic, obviously, they should also know the extent of what they’re leaving if they choose to leave. It’s not that hard to want to leave if your idea of Catholicism is sturm-und-drang endless “rules” on the one hand, and/or banners ‘n’ balloons, and Jesus is “Christ the Marshmallow” on the other.

      “The nets are not complete, of course, and only touch on points and tie some of them together as relationships”

      …why am I being reminded of something out Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, particularly his discussion of the theology of the Trinity? Moreover, what you’ve touched on here (correct me, please, if I’m being clumsy) seems connected to how science can’t explain science and why science is intelligible. Relationships and their intelligiblity speak to meaning.

      The nature of evidence commensurate to the questions we ask about reality, and the fact that different disciplines ask different questions, are matters that are philosophical. Another thing we tend to forget in the way that we often reduce degrees and disciplines to achievements, credentials, and bureaucratic hoops to jump through is that the Ph.D.– “the highest degree awarded in any field of study”– isn’t short for “Doctor of Philosophy” for nothing: to what extent are we pushing our undergraduates and graduate students to truly grapple with the philosophical underpinnings of their own disciplines (and who says, therefore, that theology has nothing to do with any of it? On what grounds?)?

  5. Pingback: How A Scientist Sees God in Nature : Stacy Trasancos

  6. Birgit Atherton Jones

    “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.”

    Excellent point – now if we could tell that to the adult scientists as well. Great post!

  7. Pingback: 10 Ways to Fall in Love with the Eucharist - BigPulpit.com

  8. Science has also begun to “see God” in human acts of generosity and virtue – or to try to deny that God has anything to do with such action. There is a large body of work about how science sees and deals with human beings’ unselfish acts and acts of love. It is in these acts of persons made in the image of God that God exhibits the beauty of His creation in its most beautiful aspect. Guy McClung, San Antonio

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