Catholic chemist writes guide to navigating science
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
If you want to judge a book by its cover, then you’ll come to a certain conclusion about Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science, by Stacy Trasancos. It looks totally awesome.
First, there’s the perfect color: purple. Its regal connotations supply an appropriate metaphor for the higher vantage point of faith, from which this book’s survey of science proceeds.
Then, there’s the title’s pun. The grandeur of Catholicism’s creed, its sublime “articles of faith,” is contrasted with the small “particles” of our individual mental journeys towards God.
Best of all, there is the visual pun of rosary beads and crosses, arranged like the patterns of organic chemistry, as found in diagrams of the structure of molecules.
As for the author herself, Stacy is a wife and mother of seven, with a PhD in chemistry. Now a teacher and writer, she previously worked in the chemical industry for DuPont, as a research scientist.
In a spirit of humility, Stacy writes that she has not figured everything out, but learned instead how to “navigate the issues.” Because “the knowledge we gain in our lives will never be complete,” she observes, we shouldn’t look at any difficult issues as if the journey is over.
“Science and scientists do not have all the answers because we are only human and acquire knowledge in steps,” she writes. Therefore, scientific reason “must remain subordinate to faith because science alone can never prove the truths we hold in faith. Science can give us deeper understanding and insight. Science can inspire us to express awe and wonder.”
Offering a paradigm of how science can do this, Stacy draws upon her own background to write of the “order and design in the atom, in the history of the atoms, in the relation of atoms to each other,” and “in the prescribed laws that govern their actions.”
The key here is to see, in the light of faith, how these atoms in nature are “part of a bigger systemic reality.” Taking this wider view is the “richest, most reasonable, and vastly more exciting” approach to science.
As part of this wider view, Stacy writes of a “system of wills,” of which we are a part, meaning that we can use our intellect and free choice to “move matter.”
“We are part of the greater system of wills. When God intervenes to move matter, he does not break the laws of nature. Rather, his will represents the supreme law,” she writes.
To my mind, this description is unfortunate, in much the same way Stacy spoke of the “subordination” of science to faith. That locution is the legacy of the Platonic project to achieve a unification of the sciences by following the pattern of a single paradigm.
Just as it would be more fitting to follow an Aristotelian conception of the autonomy of the sciences (as Aquinas did), and to speak instead of the “coordination” of the truths of science with those of faith, so too would it be more fitting to drop the unfortunate talk of a “system of wills.”
A more Thomistic emphasis on the real intelligibility of nature, as grounded in its actuality, would be preferable to the doctrine (called “voluntarism”) that derives order and intelligibility primarily from the exercise of the will.
Since God’s nature is supreme order and intelligibility, when He generously gives actual being to anything in creation, it cannot be anything but ordered and intelligible, says Aquinas.
This philosophical view would fit better with Stacy’s efforts in her book to critique the misguided opponents of evolutionary science. After all, the mistake made by the proponents of “intelligent design” is their notion of God’s action in the world having more in common with voluntarism than with Thomistic natural theology.
For them, God’s action in nature becomes an arbitrary external cause, like a designer of artifacts who implements design with acts of will. But if everything in nature is intelligently designed (as Stacy rightly observes in her critique of “intelligent design” creationism), then we need to refine our conception of nature’s actual source of order.
God is not forcefully implementing “prescriptive” laws of nature, but rather immanently supplying nature’s very order and intelligibility, through what Aquinas called “primary causality.” It is this overwhelming, intrinsic intelligibility that our “descriptive” laws try to approximate in their attempts at ordered models.
The book of nature thus contains ever more order and intelligibility than science can yet describe. Its contents spur us on to further inquiry, with its beautiful cover inviting us to the ongoing quest.