In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece of June 26th, “God and Science Don’t Mix”, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss claims that the traditional belief in an “active” God is entirely incompatible with modern science. He writes:
“J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a “god, angel, or devil” will interfere with one’s experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.”
In other words, for science to proceed, miracles cannot be considered. Science depends on a universe that operates according to its own rational, internal laws of causation. A universe which was constantly being manipulated by supernatural intervention would be incomprehensible to science.
As the lifetime work of Father Stanley Jaki has shown, modern science has developed in the West because of its recognition of the orderly, independent operation of the natural universe. What Krauss is unaware of, however, is that the modern scientific heritage developed not in spite of, but rather because of, the Catholic Church. The Church, like Krauss, recognizes that the universe possesses an autonomy of its own, and does not require God to intervene from moment to moment to physically direct its activities. So whence the conflict?
“When I confronted my two Catholic colleagues on the panel with the apparent miracle of the virgin birth and asked how they could reconcile this with basic biology, I was ultimately told that perhaps this biblical claim merely meant to emphasize what an important event the birth was. Neither came to the explicit defense of what is undeniably one of the central tenets of Catholic theology.”
If Krauss’ account of their replies is correct, it’s disappointing that his Catholic interlocutors (who happened to be Ken Miller and Brother Guy Consolmagno) did not defend the Church’s teaching more robustly. But the error here I want to focus on is Krauss’ assertion that because Catholicism requires belief in some miracles, Catholicism therefore rejects the orderly universe of science. In a certain sense, he makes the mistake of assuming that because Catholics believe in miracles, they must believe that miracles are commonplace.
That’s not how the Catholic scientist sees the universe, however. A Catholic accepts, as Krauss does, a universe that is rational and orderly, but that does not exclude the extraordinary miracle. As G. K. Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy, “We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception.” Left to itself, the universe does operate according to its own laws, and it is those laws the Catholic scientist seeks to uncover; but God can intervene from time to time if He so wills.
What of the objection, then, made by Haldane and quoted by Krauss, that a scientist cannot proceed experimentally if he cannot be sure his results are not the result of miraculous intervention? Well, neither can he be entirely sure his results are not the result of the night janitor or a disgruntled graduate student fiddling with his experiments. Although the Catholic scientist accepts miracles, but he does not count on them in the course of his day’s work. Nor is the objection of tentativeness cogent here: science is always tentative and relies on repetition, peer-review, and further experimentation to continually refine its conclusions. Experiments always contain errors and imprecision, and continual study makes our knowledge more accurate. Such a method should dispel any fears about minor miracles fouling experimental results.
Ultimately, a belief in miracles and a belief in an orderly universe are not incompatible. The point of miracles is that they are rare suspensions of the universe’s ordinary way of working. Believing God can do such a thing does not negate a belief that the universe usually works by natural scientific laws.