Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Science, Faith, and Leaving the 19th Century Behind

(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy, one of 54 galaxies in the Local Group, photographed in ultraviolet light by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer.)

Folks can see the Andromeda Galaxy from Earth's northern hemisphere: on a clear night with no moon, anyway. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi gets credit for 'discovering' it: but I'm pretty sure that quite a few folks had seen it before he mentioned "A Little Cloud" in "Book of Fixed Stars," somewhere around 964.

Knowledge and Change

In 1764, Charles Messier, another astronomer, put the galaxy in his catalog as a nebula: object M31.

By the 19th century, astronomers realized that some light from the Andromeda "nebula" resembled light from stars. In 1925, Edwin Hubble used observations of Cepheid variable stars to demonstrate that the Andromeda Galaxy was another "island universe:" far outside our Milky Way Galaxy.

Light from the Andromeda Galaxy passing Earth today has been traveling for about 2,540,000 years. It began its journey when Australopithecus garhi, africanus, and afarensis lived. Some of those folks made the earliest stone tools we know about, so I'm inclined to see them as people: even if they didn't look like we do today.

Change happens. I've seen old family photos of my Campbell ancestors: before we lost the cam béal, wry mouth, that described our clan. One of my very distant kinswomen holds Cawdor Castle to this day, and that's another topic.

My faith doesn't depend on knowing about my recent ancestors: or our more remote forebears.

But, as I've said before: my faith is not threatened by knowledge.

Cosmic Scale, Old and New

Roughly 2,600 years back, quite a few folks figured that we lived on a flat plate, between a big inverted bowl and massive pillars that held up our world. We've learned a bit since then, which upsets some folks living today. (February 5, 2014)

(From N. F. Gier, University of Idaho; adapted from an illustration in the New American Bible: St. Joseph Edition; used w/o permission.)
(A Mesopotamian cosmology, about two dozen centuries ago.)

I knew a fellow who said that our sun orbits Earth, because that's what Joshua 10:13 says. Some Christians may still think that Earth is flat, or in the center of Aristotle's spheres, but my guess is that most of us have decided that Copernicus was right.

On the other hand, a remarkable number of folks still insist that God agrees with a 17th century scholar's idea of how old the universe is.

"...As a Grain from a Balance..."

We've known that the universe is vast and ancient for thousands of years.
"4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.

"But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.

"For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

"And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? "
(Wisdom 11:22-25)
Learning that it's a whole lot bigger and older that we thought doesn't bother me. (May 29, 2014)

I see no problem with studying this vast and ancient creation: even, make that particularly if, we have to revise some of our assumptions in the process. Science and technology are tools, and using them is part of being human. It's not all there is to life, and that's yet another topic. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1723, 2292-2296)

We're created by God, designed with a thirst for truth and for God. We're made from the stuff of this world. We're also made "in the image of God," creatures who are matter and spirit. Using our senses and reason, we can observe the world's order and beauty: learning something of God in the process. (Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Catechism, 27, 31-35, 282-289, 355-361)

Secondary Causes and Truth

The Church tells me that God constantly creates and maintains this universe. Believing that God creates, and knowing that a fire's light and heat involve electron transitions, doesn't cause cognitive dissonance.

I don't have to believe that physical realities exist or that God exists. Everything we observe reflects some facet of the Creator's truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

Fire, gravity, all natural processes, involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. Since I believe that God creates everything, and that God is not a liar: nothing we learn about this universe can threaten an informed faith.

Fearing knowledge is irrational. As Leo XIII wrote, "truth cannot contradict truth." (Catechism, 159, 214-217; "Providentissimus Deus")

Paleontology and Perspective

Faith and reason, science and religion, get along fine. Many of the early scientists were Catholics: including Albertus Magnus, patron saint of scientists.

The quaint notion that all Christians believe in a small, young, and basically unchanging, universe is fairly new.

Some of the goofiness goes back to 1650, when a Dublin-born Englishman published "Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world." Ussher's chronology was pretty good scholarship in its day.

Meanwhile, folks like Nicolas Steno were laying groundwork for today's anatomy, paleontology, geology, and crystallography.

Darwin's "Origin of Species" was a best-seller in 1859, making evolution a hot topic in the English-speaking world.

I can understand why born-again secularists sometimes claim that if Ussher was wrong — God can't exist.

What makes less sense to me are Christians who make the same claim. I'm confident that God could have created a universe that's exactly like what Ussher and folks in ancient Mesopotamia imagined.

I'm also quite certain that God created something on a far grander scale. (June 20, 2014; June 1, 2014; October 13, 2013)

There's a sort of 'you are here' graphic, showing our location in this universe, at after this post's "Background" links.1

Finally, I think it's prudent to put this vast and ancient universe in perspective:
"Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?"
(Psalms 139:7)

"3 Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below; Though the heavens grow thin like smoke, the earth wears out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies, My salvation shall remain forever and my justice shall never be dismayed."
(Isaiah 51:6)

"and: 'At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.

"They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment.

"You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.' " (Hebrews 1:10-12)

"Then the sky was divided 13 like a torn scroll curling up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place."
(Revelation 6:14)
And that's yet again another topic.

Related posts:
  • "Fides et Ratio"
    Pope John Paul II, on the relationship between faith and reason (September 14, 1998)
  • "Providentissimus Deus"
    Pope Leo XIII, on the study of Holy Scripture (November 18, 1893)

1'You are here,' from the Local Group to Local Superclusters.

(From Andrew Z. Colvin, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.