Wednesday, August 08, 2007

And A Good Example Of Catholic Science

My father-in-law sent me a link to Bellarmine’s magazine, Connections, the current issue of which contains a number of articles on the school’s alumni and their take on various views of science, including evolution and intelligent design. Bellarmine is a Catholic college prep high school in San Jose, California and my father-in-law has always been proud of his attendance there. He should be. While reading the articles I again found a bit a hope that the Catholic educational system (of which I am a product, at least partially) hasn’t completely teetered to the side of anti-science advocacy. (Unfortunately, I merely have to read Michael Behe, Denyse O’Leary, Benjamin Wiker, Richard Newhouse and numerous authors in First Things, or visit a host of “Catholic Answers” web pages to realize there is still a large and vocal group of Catholics wanting to return science to the 12th century). Nonetheless, the articles clearly showed a group of scientists who, while maintaining their own faith, clearly understood that science pretty much tells us the truth about the way in which the world works. The article on “Finding Frontiers in Science” highlights the amazing scientific discoveries of the last decade, including “…new discoveries of hominid skulls in Kenya leading to breakthroughs in studying early man”. In an interview with several Bellarmine alumni scientists, Dr. Richard Nevle says

Now, it’s pretty clear that shallow seas once existed on the Martian surface. But back in the mid-eighties the notion of water on Mars was still very speculative. Holding pieces of Mars in my hand was pretty cool. And that is the reason, to this day in my geology class, I pass around meteorites to my students, because there’s nothing neater than holding on to a 4.6 billion year-old piece of history.

Bellarmine alumnus and science teacher Marty McKenzie:

People don’t realize it, but science is a great path for people who want to do something creative. To take a set of scientific observations, make sense of them, and come up with new experiments to test your theory — that is really a creative challenge.

No Answers in Genesis anti-science young earth creationists in this crowd of Catholic scientists. And while the Catholic journal First Things seems to be touting authors who doubt the existence, effects or human sources of global warming, these Catholic scientists view the issue less politically and more pragmatically:

Roman DiBiase:
Unfortunately, we do not have the convenience of waiting around for the best solution to appear before taking action. There are certain things we can do as a country that can help regardless of the exact nature of the problem. There is no reason not to build more energy-efficient houses, or fuel-efficient cars. Conservation is the key. The technology is available, but it requires a certain acceptance of failure on our part. People don’t want to change unless they absolutely have to, especially when the status quo is perfectly functional in our day-to-day lives. While I personally would not like to see gas go up to $6-8 per gallon, I’m sure it would jump-start a new era of energy efficient vehicles and alternative transportation.

(I agree: I’m not excited about $6-8/gallon gas, either – but it may be the only thing that gets us really serious about abandoning fossil fuels and moving into more efficient, cheaper and non-polluting sources of energy. Humans never seem to make radical jumps in their technology and cultural evolution until faced with a crisis).

Richard Nevle on the human causes of global warming:
So, with the birth of agricultural civilization about 8,000 years ago, humans began clearing land of forests to make it available for agriculture. The burning of those trees, by comparison to previous eras, was putting large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Later on, the advent of rice cultivation began to introduce large amounts of methane to the atmosphere…I and my collaborator surveyed the existing natural records of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from this time, and just as importantly, the records of the carbon isotope composition of CO2 — a chemical fingerprint, which together reveal a removal of CO2 in the atmosphere right after European arrival that is consistent with the signal expected from reforestation. All because so many indigenous Americans died from pandemics during the centuries of European conquest. Humans, we learned, seem to be changing climate even before the Industrial Era.

On the topic of Intelligent Design and Evolution, none of the Bellarmine alumni favored intelligent design. They were, however, unwilling to abandon faith completely, certainly something to be expected from Catholic scientists. I was interested, however, to read that they were exploring the intersection of faith and science beyond what we would normally read in the mainstream press. Charan Ranganath asks, “When is the imprimatur of God imposed upon matter? Is it at the very beginning of the universe — in the very nature of matter itself? For scientists who have a faith life, this is a very appealing notion. Einstein said he believed in the God of Spinoza, in other words, a god who is manifested in the order of nature…How does randomness fit with the notion of a God who is active in our lives? Now that’s an interesting question”.

There are vestiges of Gould’s NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) principle here, again something to be expected from Catholics and certainly something akin to what was presented during my early Catholic educational career. I am afraid that I have come to largely abandon the NOMA principle although there was a time when I advocated for it. During that period in my life, the randomness question was actually quite easy to solve: for a god of infinite time and space (which is presumably what we all believed in) is there such a thing as “random”? Randomness is a product of scale…and at the scale of human perception, things that appear random to us may not in fact be random to something at a much different scale.

Now, however, I think this is all a rather moot point. Personally I can no longer accept today’s religions as a window on the spiritual (I’ve read too much Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris; studied too much religious history, and know too much about human behavior). Religion (and by association, theology) is largely a product of human political agendas, disguised as something personal. But more on that later…

In the article, Charan Ranganath seems to look to further discovery in science as a way to bolster a personal faith, provided a mind is kept open: “I told him every time I’ve learned something about the brain, it gives me an appreciation of our complexity and of the delicate balance of factors that makes each of us unique. If you believe in God (or Gods), I would think that understanding our origins and our nature should reaffirm that belief, not undermine it”.
But Dr. Ranganath’s most impressive words on the subject of evolution and intelligent were the following:

When I hear about this issue, I can’t help but think that the blame falls squarely on scientists, not on the “religious right.” …Unfortunately, most scientists aren’t interested in engaging in a dialogue with the public, which is why you have the current state of affairs. If we want people to believe in science, we have to actually give them a reason, and say it clearly and consistently.

Certainly many scientists don’t engage the public on a regular basis. We need to step out of our ivory towers and discuss the method and results of scientific inquiry, whatever the discipline. As I’ve said countless times before, we need to compete with the creationists in constantly voicing why they are in error and we are correct. Those of us in the blogosphere are taking a good first step to counter the misinformation generated by the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, and the like. It’s good to see that good Catholic institutions like Bellarmine are turning out scientists who feel the same way…

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