Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

Persons, not Particles, and Verve, not Vibrations.

Persons, not Particles, and Verve, not Vibrations.

“It would have been a great disappointment to me if Vibration did not somewhere make itself felt, for all scientistic mystics either vibrate in person or find themselves resonant with cosmic vibrations; but I am happy to say that on page 266 Teilhard will be found to do so.” This sentence pretty much sums up Peter Medawar’s opinion on Teihard de Chardin.

Medawar was a very accomplished scientist and Nobel prize winner for his work in biology, with a wide range of interests, including philosophy and religion. He can hardly be accused of being too narrow-minded for the greater vision of human existence, but like most successful scientists, he had no patience for obscurantist writing. He considered Teilhard de Chardin to be far beyond the pale. His review of “The Phenomenon of Man” should be required reading for all those who want to write about faith and science without alienating the scientists. Scientistic mysticism only reinforces their desire to stay clear of any consideration of the religious connotations in their work.

Wassily Kandinsky, Circles in a Circle (1923)

Science is a very sober affair. It requires long hours of concentrated work, meticulous attention to detail, constant alertness to error, and an uncompromising rejection of any shortcuts on the path to true understanding. When something is accomplished, it results from hard work, or it is not accomplished at all. In the end, it is there for all to see, so simple and so convincing that anybody willing to do the work can get it. This is why it is not at all a good starting point for mysticism.

But, we are left to ask, what about us? Who are we who understand this marvelous work? Surely there is more to us, beyond the sobriety of science. Some will take the intellectual crowd pleasers quantum mechanics and relativity and tie them together with a bit of string theory and claim that somehow, human persons in all their splendor will miraculously step out of the logical necessity of mathematical relations and make sense of it all. Why not just say that God formed us out of the dust of the earth? This, at least, does not imply a logical contradiction. The all-encompassing order of mathematics contradicts the essential nature of human life in its distinctive and incommunicable individuality. Calling our existence an emergent feature in a mathematical universe explains nothing, as it leaves unsaid how the individual could possibly emerge within this mathematical framework and then step out of it (if you are a Star Trek fan, look up the episode “Ship in a Bottle” and see how they handle this conundrum).

Another solution must be found. Could it be that those who consider all of reality explained by physics are making a simple mistake? Could it be that they mistake the end for the beginning? They are right to accept the results of physics as trustworthy knowledge of reality, revealing a logical structure in reality. However, what is found as the endpoint of this investigation is more like the dead bones that are left behind when the body decays, and who would start there in a quest to understand the body?

It seems so obvious. Quarks and leptons and elementary particles made of them are the wrong starting points for our understanding of reality. Just because the achievements of mathematical physics are so impressive and so convincing does not mean that they are the uncontroversial facts from which all else can be derived. Before we know them, we know ourselves. The sciences based in mathematical physics are abstractions from reality as we know it, not reality itself, and when something is taken away by abstraction, then it is gone for good. We cannot expect to find it still in what is left, and nothing can be learned from its absence. Therefore, all we know from mathematical physics must be seen in the light of what was already known in the beginning: our experience of being persons, with a distinct identity that can be shared with another only in part.

Wassily Kandinsky, Colorful Life (1907, detail)

If we wish to understand the phenomenon of human existence, then we cannot begin with mathematical physics. Instead, these results must be read with the knowledge of the human person as the key to understanding of reality already present, as the one who developed this science and now needs to interpret these results as one way of looking at the context of human life. The human person is not an emergent feature of a mathematical universe, but the mathematical universe is a reductive feature of human persons’ understanding of themselves, each other, and the world in which they live. The most fundamental constituents of reality are persons, and we understand all else by analogy with and abstracting from them.

Once I got this, I found it much easier to see how the human person fits into a physical universe. Now, the problem of reconciling science and faith does not seem so hard any longer.