U.S. Physicist on Reconciling Science With the Church

Anthony Rizzi on How to Reach a Delicate Balance

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana, SEPT. 17, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The Catholic Church gave birth to science and helped support its growth for years, but in modern times the two are often seen as pitted against each other.

Anthony Rizzi wants to change that. Rizzi, the director of Institute for Advanced Physics who gained worldwide recognition in theoretical physics by solving an 80-year-old problem in Einstein’s theory, is determined to bring science back to the Church.

He shared with ZENIT his experience as a Catholic scientist and his thoughts on why the relationship between faith and science needs to be restored.

Q: The Church was once a major patron of the sciences, but today, it is often seen in opposition. How does your Institute for Advanced Physics mend the schism between the Church and sciences? How do you reconcile your actively Catholic worldview with the secular ambience that apparently dominates the scientific workplace?

Rizzi: Science came «from the heart of the Church,» to borrow a phrase from Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution of that title.

Modern science was not born in China, or in undiscovered North or South America, or anywhere else but Catholic Europe. Does the beautiful flower of modern science bloom in the area of the garden that is poisoned? To the contrary, it does so in the fertile part.

Indeed, the Catholic Church fostered a cultural ground fertile for science. Most fundamentally, the Church inculturated the foundational principles necessary for the development of modern science, such as the fact that the world is rational and good. These principles were clearly articulated in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas, the common doctor of the Church.

So, the question left is twofold: Why, in science, is there a real tension against the Church, and indeed against any effort to speak about immaterial causes? And why is there a fideist tendency among devout Catholics that manifests itself as laissez-faire attitude about science or even an anti-science attitude?

The answer to this lies deep in the way the scientific method has been misused and its conclusions misinterpreted.

The great philosopher and Catholic Jacques Maritain started a path out of the morass; we at the Institute for Advanced Physics have cleared the path further and plan to continue. Specifically, we plan to reintegrate the sound foundations — i.e., the proper moral, spiritual and philosophical components — back into the heart of the research and full education of physicists, chemists and biologists.

A major task of the institute is to educate people on how the scientific method is often misused and misunderstood and how it should be used and understood. Most people are probably familiar with the popular use of quantum mechanics to claim that the principle of causality is overturned or to justify subjectivist worldviews. These conclusions are made by misunderstanding the limits of the scientific method.

This topic is rarely discussed because there are so few people who understand the issue, since it requires both scientific and sound philosophical training to truly unwind the issues. My book «The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century» discusses these issues, and the institute recently sponsored a Cultural Renewal of Science conference at University of Notre Dame in which eight internationally known speakers elucidated the damage by scientism to eight fields, including physics, theology, philosophy and politics.

Q: What value do philosophy and your faith have for you as a professional physicist? What relationship should exist between philosophy, theology and physics?

Rizzi: Philosophy — that is, the philosophy of St. Thomas — and faith have enabled me to properly understand the place of my work as a physicist. This includes better understanding the physical meaning of what we do in physics, which will surprise many.

Physics as it’s practiced today is largely studying the world as quantitative, as mathematical. It uses this powerful technique to reach things that are not immediately accessible to our senses, but doesn’t always move beyond the technique. When it does, it sometimes does so without sufficient care. Most non-physicists don’t realize that mathematics is the language of modern physics.

Now, the mathematical is very important. It is doubly so. The mathematical is the first property of all physical things, and it is, as St. Thomas also says, the science most connatural to man. However, when one is good at something, one is tempted to concentrate inordinately, or even exclusively, on it. The later is what has happened with mathematics in physics.

For example, if I see a wheel I can abstract the idea of a circle from it; it’s the boundary. As a physicist, modeling it as a circle, I can say much about how the wheel behaves. I can easily become so habituated by the power of this method that I forget that the wheel is more than just a circle.

Obviously, more complex things will be even less accurately described by the mathematical alone. Our equations in physics tell us quite a bit, but they do not exhaust the thing. Furthermore, they often hide more than they reveal.

So, what is the proper place and meaning of physics? The first things we know are physical things, for we sense them directly. Physics is properly the study of the physical world. Physics, in this extended sense, includes what is now called physics, chemistry and biology.

St. Thomas says that philosophy — broadly speaking, wisdom — is not an isolated specialty, but a part of every branch of knowledge. One needs wisdom in physics, wisdom in morality, wisdom in engineering, etc. Medieval man viewed knowledge in this holistic fashion. Even now, we, the inheritors of that tradition, have Ph.D.s.

Ph.D. means doctor of philosophy, and one gets a Ph.D. in many fields; for example I am a doctor of philosophy in physics. Now since we know everything through our senses, physics — in this extended sense, not the modern sense — is the starting point of science.

Now, if we get the starting point wrong, the remainder of our thinking including our metaphysics and theology will be wrong, incomplete and distorted to the extent the base is. This is where we are now.

Immanuel Kant codified this for us by making modern science, for him Newtonian physics, the starting point of knowledge. Modern science is a middle or end point, not a starting point. If we start with modern science, we end as Kantians, not knowing things in themselves, indeed not knowing that there are things at all.

This absurd conclusion should make us return to «the science before science,» that science that starts with what is more known and moves to what is less known. The first thing we know, as G.K. Chesterton once phrased it, is that «there is an is.»

Q: How do your fellow researchers react to your Catholic beliefs?

Rizzi: I saw the columnist Robert Novak asked the same question relative to his colleagues and his response pretty much answers the question in my case as well. He said they respond as if he told them he had just taken up butterfly collecting. That is also how my colleagues generally view the matter; they see it as an odd thing but of little real importance.

Materialism is very much absorbed into the heart of the sciences, because of the misunderstanding of the method mentioned already.

Yet, I must quickly add that scientists are among the few left in our culture that still believe in truth. In this respect, I often find I have more in common with my scientific colleagues than I do with even some of my Catholic brothers.

Scientists believe in truth. This is what makes them in many ways the new high priest
s to whom the public looks for their beliefs about the world.

Q: What is the impact of John Paul II on the dialogue between science and faith?

Rizzi: John Paul II’s role has been crucially important in the same way that I think his pontificate in general has. He bears witness in an increasingly cynical and Machiavellian world that an intelligent man can be a holy and faith-filled, selfless leader — sacrificing himself for love of God, spending his considerable talents and abilities for love of God and in him for all men.

We are called to follow his example in our own particular vocations. We laymen are called to solve the particular problems such as the schism between science and the faith. We cannot expect the Pope to be a physicist and do the job physicists should do. It is our job to live fully human lives in the vocation for which God made us.

We must bring science back to the Catholic Church, which gave it birth. It is the Catholic physicist’s role to do science in the proper balance for the glory of God. St. Irenaeus said the man who is fully alive is the glory of God.

* * *

Rizzi’s book «The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century» as well as audio and DVD recordings of the recent conference are available through the Web.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation