Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

This was very interesting, Father.

This was very interesting, Father.


The dreaded word, disclosing by hiding, making ambiguity its only reality: interesting. This, and a remark that my talk was the one that was most talked about, were the principal comments that I remember now that the conference is in the past. Hardly the first time that I am hearing this. Later, when I was trying to go to sleep, I remembered another talk that I had given long ago, in 1998. It had been in Italy, at an international conference at the occasion of the 100th anniversary of work done by the Italian scientist Camillo Golgi. My contribution had caused a bit of a kerfuffle.

A friend reminded me of this talk. He had made reference to it, at another anniversary conference ten years thereafter, without me as I had already joined the friars. By then, my work was no longer quite so controversial (I wonder, though, what my colleagues would have been thinking of my new living arrangements). The matter had been one of turning directions in an intracellular transport process. What I had presented caused a lot of objections, and it took years for my contribution to be accepted. It was accepted, eventually, but what I remember is the controversy, the angry retorts telling me that what I had just said just could not possibly be true.

Concert in the Egg (c. 1550, follower of Hieronymus Bosch, detail)

People prefer to hear what they expect to hear, as it is comforting and reassuring. Once again, at the conference in Chicago, I felt that we had heard quite enough of an old story, and I was rather looking forward to giving my talk. However, I had not really anticipated so much discussion and surprise at what I was going to say.

The controversy was about the kind of commitment we ought to make to reality that we know only by way of physics. We infer a lot in physics. All of physics is a theory, and a mathematical theory, and it is extremely successful in explaining experiments that test this theory. But is it real? Are the elementary particles of the currently existing theory in physics real, or just stepping stones on the way to a better and more fundamental theory? Maybe when all is done, there will be turtles at the bottom of it after all, just turtles very much smaller than we had thought. I suppose that this would be progress, of a sort.

Concert in the Egg (c. 1550, follower of Hieronymus Bosch, detail)

Everyone is a realist about something (as remarked by Robert Spaemann). And something is real about the entities described by physics, but what this is remains rather speculative. I can kick a stone if I have doubt whether the stone is real, but it is a lot more complicated to be convinced that quarks are real. Yet, quarks explain how atoms are made, and atoms explain how atoms make minerals, and there’s the stone that hurts my foot. Our grasp of reality is quite strong as long as it is on our scale, but on the way to the bottom it gets more and more tentative. Finally, in quantum mechanics, reality seems to entirely slip through our fingers.

I applied a similar argument to the age of the universe, and the meaning of it being 14 billion years old, in spite of human history being just a few millennia. This is what I consider the old story that I have heard all too often. The story that the immense age and size of the universe does not challenge believers, does not challenge those who believe that human beings are special and created in the image of God.

What, then, is real? Why give the victor’s palm to physics, rather than human beings, whose making sense of the world gave rise to the abstractions and mathematical models of physics? The time of which I know, or the time that I can access by way of my imagination informed by the historical record, is rather short, compared with the age of the universe. Just a few millennia. And maybe a few tens or even a hundred thousand years of prehistorical time in which anatomically modern human beings lived lives somewhat akin to indigenous peoples in, for example, the Amazon.

Ship of Fools (Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500)

I argued that one need not make any commitment to realism about events in time beyond what is accessible by way of human relationships–the present and the past mediated by the historical record. Before human beings, or after them (cosmologists predict that the universe will long outlast us), our hold on reality is slipping. The matter of reality, the distinction between what is real and what is only an imagination, is very much a preoccupation of persons. So why is it so controversial that without persons, the reality of the matter in which they are to exist is a question for the angels to ponder, but not for us to know?

All our science begins with human understanding. And human understanding begins with knowing oneself as a person in community with other persons. I grasp reality as I make sense of the world and as I make sense of there being other persons. From this, I grasp the reality of other persons, other living beings, and all other material beings. Why should I now flip this around, say that these material beings are the most fundamental reality, and that material reality existed before us? A world that lacks persons, the place were the distinction between what is real and what is not begins, cannot be fully real. As a person of faith, I can say that it is made real through its relationship with God, but it is certainly without any claim to reality on its own.

Maybe in ten years, someone else will come and explain this again and do it better than I could do it. In the meantime, I am happy to find out that I am still capable of upsetting people with a different point of view, turning things upside down. At my age, that’s not bad at all.

And I hope you like the Hieronymus Bosch pictures. My other idea were Star Wars action figures by Lego, but I thought that Hieronymus Bosch worked better. Also, his copyright has expired.