In preparation for a discussion, I have been looking at John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. My purpose in reviewing the encyclical, which deals with faith and reason generally, is to relate it to modern science specifically.
Introduction to Fides et Ratio
The central point of the introduction seems to be that in recent times philosophers have abandoned “the investigation of being” (metaphysics) and “concentrated instead upon human knowing” (epistemology). Moreover, in their concentration upon knowing, philosophers have “preferred to accentuate the ways in which [the human capacity to know the truth] is limited and conditioned”.
In leading up to this point, John Paul II argues that no philosophical system is a complete account of all reality, but there is a common philosophical core that can be viewed as the “spiritual heritage of humanity”. This core includes “the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness”.
In the wake of modern philosophical trends, though, what had been a “legitimate plurality of positions” surrounding the common philosophical core “has yielded to an undifferentiated pluralism, based upon the [relativistic] assumption that all positions are equally valid”, even positions at odds with the aforementioned spiritual heritage. Unfortunately, this attitude of relativism and the “widespread distrust of the human being’s great capacity for knowledge” is seen “among the men and women of our time, and not just in some philosophers”.
Regarding the introduction summarized above, one easily sees how John Paul II’s thesis applies to philosophy, limited in scope as it is in the modern sense. However, the opposite thesis might apply to natural philosophy; that is, to modern science.
Whereas relativism has brought a lack of confidence in our ability to know the propositions of our true philosophical heritage, modern science has brought an over-confidence in our ability to know the physical world. A scientific theory is sometimes treated as if it could be known as truth, when, at most, the truth is only that the theory successfully predicts the results to date from a certain class of experiment. The idea of scientific progress assumes in fact that the theory will one day fail to predict the results of new experiments in the class; the theory will be ruled out and replaced. Such a theory is not to be regarded at any point as though it were a truth. To assert, therefore, that the universe is older than ten billion years (and younger than 20 billion years), as if this were a truth, is to demonstrate a kind of over-confidence, for, regardless of the amount and precision of the data collected to support it, this assertion assumes the truth of a particular scientific theory.
Ironically, the over-confidence here involves an assertion that is not proper to science. It is not within the power of science to declare that a given theory is true. Such a declaration is an assertion proper to philosophy. The scientific community identifies which theories remain consistent with the ever-growing observational record and identifies from among the various candidate theories a standard model that suggests avenues for future research.
When a scientist such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking steps outside of science to assert (explicitly or implicitly) that a particular theory is true or to assert that some combination of observation and theory obviates the need for God in a rational system of belief, he falls under John Paul II’s criticism. Though often neglected these days, the rational investigation of being reveals the necessity of God for the existence of things. In attempting not to adopt any particular metaphysical theory, the atheistic scientist ends up implicitly adopting a false metaphysical theory that is not subject to any critical assessment. Here, the title of the encyclical is apt: “Know Thyself”. At the very least, one ought to know one’s metaphysical assumptions.