A Faith Fearless in the Face of Truth

Raphael, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (1509, detail)

Recently, I heard of a young Catholic’s crisis of faith. He attributed it to his collegiate studies and a disconnect in its instruction of philosophy and the sciences. Philosophy seemed positively closed off from communication with the natural sciences. It had no healthy skepticism and was rather dogmatic. Further, given the close connection between philosophical tenets and Catholic theology, philosophy was often cut to the measure of revelation. Without this defensive and closed-minded philosophical outlook (went the implicit message), the rational basis for various Catholic dogmas—for instance, transubstantiation—would be undermined.

The intellectual sources of such a crisis are familiar to many, and sorting out the real from the apparent in the conflict between faith, philosophy, and science is difficult and long-suffering work. Catholic theologians, philosophers, and scientists over the past 140 years have gone to great lengths to accomplish this, lest, as C. P. Snow laments in The Two Cultures, “the great edifice of modern physics [go] up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.” The best Catholic liberal education should strive to avoid such a state.

The young student’s intellectual quandary is one that pins philosophy on two fronts, its antagonists apparent science and faith. We shall discuss each front in turn. We then address the problematic relation of all three: philosophy apparently ever ancient, science seemingly ever new, and a Faith that is, somehow, both. While what follows should not be taken as a sufficient defense for all philosophical or scientific objections against the Eucharist (this would involve a much longer article), I think it is a necessary beginning for such a defense.

Philosophy and science

In our first attempts to understand the world (to borrow Aristotle’s image), we are like a young child who has just learned to talk and calls every man a “father” and every woman a “mother,” not yet realizing that not all men are fathers nor all women mothers. These later realizations refine the child’s knowledge without destroying it entirely. The child had merely used too specific a name for his vague grasp of a more general truth, for adult males without offspring are still men. Likewise, the mind’s inquiry into nature should progress without denying what is manifest or avoiding what is difficult and hidden. The manifest are the ordinary things of our everyday experience and their familiar features. The difficult and hidden explain what is puzzling and wonderful about the obvious when looked at more closely, without obviating its immediate truth. It is necessarily so, for otherwise who is left to hear the explanation? As St. Thomas wrote of Aristotle, “It was characteristic of his philosophy not to abandon the manifest.”

The philosopher and the scientist take what is more manifest to us at first and seek further truths in distinct but related ways. On the one hand, the philosopher begins with a manifest image of the world and refines it. This progress demands true conceptions about the world that are available through experience common to human beings in general. Logic or ethics or metaphysics are the hard-won results. On the other hand, the scientist builds his image of the world through variegated experimental methods. This work requires conceptions of the world that are difficult to obtain, and are obtained by few people. (Not all are experimental scientists, and of them, none perform all the experiments in all areas; this is why the sciences are overwhelmingly social in their achievements and why we instinctively say “We now know that …” when reporting them.) As a result, we have physics, chemistry, biology, or neuroscience. Yet these two images are not unrelated. Those called “natural philosophers” were the ones, historically, to build—or find, depending on whom you ask—the bridge between the two images. We have forgotten how they are connected, a forgetfulness compounded by each generation’s pigeonholed interests.

There is, then, a possibility of exchange between philosophy and the sciences. Our forgetfulness of their connection makes this difficult by disintegrating the one world into two purportedly separate ones, as captured in Eddington’s comments about his “two tables.” These are his ordinary wooden table and his scientific table (made of mostly empty space and charged particles). However, the two tables cannot be different individuals, because our knowledge of the scientific table originates from our knowledge of the familiar table and we must in return explain it using words rooted in the realm of the everyday table. This exitus and redditus is a vivifying circulation of refinement between philosophy and science. Without it, either side betrays its own origins. With it, we avoid both skepticism (because we retain what is already known) and dogmatism (because of the inclusion of refinements).

Philosophy and Faith

The relationship between philosophy and the Catholic faith, between an inquiry into reality by reason and by revelation, is marked by extremes of interpretation. This is because the Catholic philosopher, to borrow Pope St. John Paul II’s phrase, must “unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” Yet surely “searching” and “having found” are two incompatible states of affairs that cannot coexist? Will it not be inevitably true that, if dogma is on the side of “having found,” then philosophy, on the side of “searching,” will be cut to the measure of revelation?

Perhaps a typical rehearsal of the usual distinctions between faith (a gift of grace) and reason (a gift of nature) will be tiresome to most readers. Let us consider a particular case instead. Vatican I’s Dei Filius, ch. 2, n. 1, declares:

The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.

What to make of this? This text shows us how the Catholic faith does not cut philosophy down to size but calls upon it to reach its full measure. In light of the weakness of human reason it is a mercy that the faith can teach us the heights which human reason can attain at its best. However, neither the Catholic faith nor the Council tells us which arguments we must use to prove the existence of God, nor do they tell us how to refute the philosophers or scientists who claim that such is impossible. In this way, philosophy is still radically free to achieve its proper perfection, even as the believer who is a philosopher knows in faith that the answer can be found. Furthermore, to say that he already knows which answer is the one to be found is clearly not the same his knowing how to find the answer. These two are known according to different capacities, the former by grace, the latter (if attained) by nature. Hence, there is no incoherence between the two because the incompatible states do not exist in him in the same way and in the same respect, even if they impose an acute existential demand. When this demand is poorly met, or poorly taught, or poorly modeled, it is all too easy to find oneself in the situation described at the outset.

Quantum physics and the Eucharist?

All the apparent tensions between philosophy, science, and the faith are immediately present in the young student’s example of transubstantiation. While the topic demands a much longer discussion to fully understand, we can at least take some first steps. We must recognize that a defense of the logical coherence of the doctrine of the Eucharist—not a full demonstration of its truth, or scriptural exegesis—is a philosophical affair. Of course, an explanation of the doctrine begins in what is manifest about things, by distinguishing between the empirical appearances and realities.

To say that ‘the accidents of bread and wine’ remain after consecration means that empirically the consecrated elements are completely indistinguishable from bread and wine. They taste like bread and wine; they look like bread and wine; they would, if made to react chemically or placed in a mass spectrograph, behave in every way just as bread and wine do. To say that ‘the substance’ of the consecrated elements is the Body and Blood of Christ, means that in reality the elements are no longer bread and wine but are the Body and Blood of Christ.

This is sufficient to explicate the Church’s teaching, in common terms, without needing a degree in quantum physics. Yet will suffice for defusing further objections or doubts? What is meant by a thing’s true “reality”? What if someone claims that what is empirically distinguishable or indistinguishable is the measure of the reality of things? If all knowledge of realities comes through the senses, then how can what are sensibly indistinguishable be different realities? These are philosophical questions and so demand philosophical answers. We must go from the manifest image of the world to its philosophical causes and elements.

Consider the more general case of theologically contemplating the very person of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. We hear in the New Testament things revealed about Christ’s existence before the Incarnation, his activity during his life, death, and resurrection, and about his human nature. Fr. Thomas Joseph White, observing this, concludes that

to study the New Testament realistically at all is to study the being and person of Christ—his two natures and operations, divine and human, as they are manifest in and through his life, death and resurrection. . . .  In some real sense it is true to say: ignorance of ontology is ignorance of Christ.

Likewise, ignorance of ontology is ignorance of Christ in the Eucharist. Here, the Church does not cut philosophy down to size, but it rather calls upon philosophy to realize its full stature, as we discussed above. Philosophers can never fully explain the Real Presence, but they can—and there are many who do— tirelessly defend it against attack by understanding the true nature of “appearances” and “realities.”

This defense is philosophical even if its arguments inevitably draw upon and consider the sciences. The reason for this is that the best philosophy is done with the best science (and vice-versa, as argued above). Here, we can only draw attention to the fact that even on its own terms, our best science has still not obviated or deleted the need for a philosophy of substances (e.g.,  quantum physicists) and accidents or properties (e.g., their knowledge of quantum physics). And the quantum physicists themselves, in a philosophical mode, make this point: it has been shown that quantum mechanics cannot be used to describe its own use by the scientist who uses it. The reality of the scientist escapes the reality described by the scientist using quantum mechanics. (I discuss this paradox in a bit more detail here.)

Many early modern philosophers derided the doctrine of the Eucharist (e.g., Hobbes, Locke, and Hume). These thinkers, some of whose philosophies were fed by the hypotheses of the atomism of the day, would have had their philosophical faith in an easily imaginable, atomistic reality undermined in light of modern quantum realities. Eddington tells us: “I do not believe that the twoness of two electrons is a bit like the twoness of the two apples.” Their ways of existing in the world are utterly distinct even if we use the same word “two” to count them. As a consequence, the substance of the first two cannot undermine the truths about the substantiality of the others.

This is as much as to say that all this is not easy work, balancing an old philosophy, the new quantum theories, and the Catholic faith, ever ancient and ever new. This is why, despite the accidents and imperfections of the presentation of any of the three in one’s education, we cannot doubt that there are things we know for certain and at the outset, without which we could not proceed along the way. Along that way, during a fearless pursuit of truth, the Eucharist is itself sign and food, demanding of us our fullest activity and requiring of us our complete surrender.

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro te devote; translation by G. H. Hopkins)


Some Further Reading

Philosophy and the Eucharist: De Koninck, “This is a Hard Saying”.

Realism and interpreting quantum physics: Smith, The Quantum Enigma, and “From Schrödinger’s Cat To Thomistic Ontology”.

Aristotle and modern science: Crane, “Aristotle Returns”.


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