The featured image to the left displays the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to contemporary times. More is said about this in the chapter about Creatio ab Initio
- History: the “truths” of science change;
- History: scientific theories require empirical confirmation;
- History: a majority of scientists can sometimes be wrong;
- Philosophy: science can’t tell you about everything;
- Theology: science is God’s gift to man, like music and art;
- Science: science gives us information to understand non-scientific issues.
About this web-book
Why a primer for science
After my retirement and my entry into the Church some 27 years ago, I began to write and teach about science and Catholic teaching. In order to do this, I had to start learning what science was all about, how it worked. (I knew the math, the techniques, but not the history or philosophy of science.) After teaching several adult education classes about science and Catholic teaching, I realized that those without a background in science required a non-mathematical, historical approach. No equations, no formulas, no math.
Now why should the faithful Catholic need to understand how science works?
- to combat “scientism,” the belief that science (no uppercase) explains everything you need to know about the world;
- to show that the Catholic Church is not an enemy of science; indeed that the Church was the midwife to the birth of science’
- to give a background for science intersecting moral issues: for example, when does life begin.
History: The BEST WAY TO LEARN ABOUT SCIENCE
So here’s my solution: a book that tells how science developed, and by this historical approach shows that the “truths” of science change as new data appears and new theories arise to explain that data. Unlike the truths of Catholic teaching, there is no eternal dogma for scientific theories, only a consistent methodology for the practice of science.
It is also necessary to set limits for the authority of science. Science can inform us how things work, but it has nothing to say about what we should do in a moral context. For example, science can tell us that there is a continuity between conception and death, so that defining “human” as having left the birth canal is an arbitrary decision, not based on science. But science has nothing to say about the morality of killing a human 3 weeks or 95 years after conception. Theology and philosophy inform us about that decision.
WHAT’S IN THE BOOK
Let’s turn now to what’s in this ebook. My wife (whose academic speciality was medieval history) has said “if you really want to find out about something you should study its history,” (or words to that effect). So the explanation of each topic will be set in a historical context. That way the reader will be better able to understand how concepts developed and how the scientific method works. By seeing how people in the past developed scientific concepts, we ourselves can get a better intuitive notion of those ideas.
The first chapter gives a brief history of how science developed in the Middle Ages, with Catholic priests as the agents. The second chapter gives a background for how science works:
- how we believe: faith, the methods of rational inquiry
- the methodology of science: the interaction of fundamental principles, theory and empirical data
- examples of how theories change to account for new data
With this background one can better understand the general ideas of following chapters, which discuss the intersection of science with Catholic teaching:
- Creation; theology and the Big Bang;
- Evolution; no war between science and the Church;
- The Anthropic Principle; are we special?
- The Soul; can a computer have one?
- Life; when does lt begin? should we modify genes?
The remaining chapters discuss domains in which one has to be aware of the limits of science and the difference between real and fake science.
In blog posts where these subjects have been discussed I’ve used animations and videos. That won’t be feasible in this ebook, so I give links to websites where these are displayed. Please use the links. I’ve tried to be selective in picking out material that will inform the reader.
KEEP IT SIMPLE!
In order to avoid complex mathematics, I give explanations that are pictorial, qualitative and down to earth. According to beta-readings of chapters by my wife (who’s a mathphobe) and privileged viewers of my blog, this effort has been successful. Formulas and equations are avoided.
For those who appreciate such, there is an Appendix—”Science Background.” Even though there are some equations here, the math is simple and there are accompanying qualitative and pictorial explanations.
Finally, I have tried to show how science, by its very nature, is limited in what it can tell us about the world. It has achieved much to enrich us materially, but as that great philosopher-physicist, Fr. Stanley Jaki, put it so eloquently,
“To answer the question ‘To be, or not to be?’ we cannot turn to a science textbook.”
In all the above I will try to demonstrate that scientific practice adheres to a fixed methodology, even though scientific theories and even principles themselves change with time. There is no fixed dogma in science, other than there is a certain way it should be done.
Let me add there have been several excellent books about science and Catholic Teaching; those by Stephen Barr and Tracy Trasancos come to mind. However, I believe I give different perspectives and tools here. As a Hindu philosopher said, “Just as there are many parts of an elephant, there are different views of what it is.”
Enjoy, learn, ponder!
Bob Kurland, rural Pennsylvania, 2022