Dr. Emily Jarvis on “Transcending Separation of Faith and Reason in the Progress of Science”

This year, Dr. Emily Jarvis prepared the following remarks in response to a talk given by Dr. Ken Miller* at our Annual Mission Day at LMU.  It is during these celebrations that we are challenged to reflect on the connections between the knowledge paths of faith and reason. Our Executive Director at CURes, Dr. Eric Strauss worked on the team that put together the events of the day as was struck by how prescient Emily’s comments were with respect to the work of our Center and the response of the faith community to the challenges of climate change – especially the Pope’s most recent Encyclical. Perhaps, this post will engender a conversation and a deepened connection to the sacred other and wonderment in our lives.  From these thoughts, come the great questions and ultimately the action that propels our communities to resilience.

*Dr. Miller delivered a lecture entitled “Finding God in All Things: Toward an Evolutionary Architecture of Life”. Dr. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and serves as an advisor on life sciences for The News Hour on PBS television.  He has co-authored a series of widely used biology textbooks.  His other writings include Finding Darwin’s God, which addresses the scientific status of evolutionary theory and its relationship to religious views of nature.  In 2011 Dr. Miller received the Steven J. Gould Prize for his work promoting the public understanding of evolution and in 2014 he was honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal. Learn more about Ken Miller here.  

Mission Day response to Ken Miller’s, “Finding God in all Things: Toward an Evolutionary Architecture of Life” Transcending Separation of Faith and Reason in the Progress of Science by Emily A. A. Jarvis

(Ken, thank you for these insights into our core understanding of life. Your commitment not only to great science but also to sharing your understanding with the public is very encouraging.)

Although my office is in this amazing Life Science Building, my students know I am really a physical scientist hiding out here hoping I don’t get caught! In my research area of quantum mechanics, the term “metaphysics” may be used to describe the extra-science issues that modern physics seems to imply – where the classical concepts of causation become vague and transcend the scope of scientific discourse. Used in this way, “metaphysics” is derogatory. Namely, in attempting to interpret quantum phenomena, one has pushed the search for meaning beyond the realm of science.

Of course, “Metaphysics” is also the name of one of Aristotle’s most famous works and a persistent branch of philosophy. In his Metaphysics, substances are composed of two separate things – Plato’s forms and Matter. He also explores separate spheres in the structure of the universe, where the heavenly spheres operate independently from the earthly center. Although Metaphysics remains influential 2300 years later, we no longer identify such separations in space and substance.

Separate spheres of movement – separate substances – Separate but equal.

When we hear these words, Aristotle’s Metaphysics may not be the first thing that comes to mind. It might recall instead the much more recent history of our nation’s flailing attempts to address the end of legalized slavery. Segregation was adopted as a means of holding to the letter of the law of inclusion, all the while maintaining separation – in effect, legalizing a lie.

It is now the season of Lent – a time focused on drawing closer to God. Jesus came to end separation initiated by the “Father of lies” and to bring us into harmony with the source of Truth and life. Jesus talks about separation in the Gospel of Mark saying “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” Upon His death, the tearing of the temple veil separating the outer area from the Holy of Holies provides a vivid symbol of His perfect sacrifice ending our separation from God.

I have been trying to highlight the idea of separation in these examples where separate always had a negative or false subtext. Although I don’t remember this for many words, I distinctly recall when I learned to spell the word “separate”. It was in reading the classic novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles. After seeing the cover of that book enough times, I finally was able to remember that the middle letter in separate is an ‘a’ instead of an ‘e’. My personal view of science and spirituality has at times displayed the dualism of Artistotle’s Metaphysics or what could be described as intellectual segregation or maybe just “A Separate Peace” – like railroad tracks – coexisting, but never joining.

Early in my career, I felt lucky to be in the physical sciences and thus avoid evolution debates that lurked around public discussions of life science and seemed to place faith and science at odds. Looking back, I realize my conflict avoidance was putting me in jeopardy of intellectual dishonesty. At times, debate is very necessary. Science progresses best only with open debate.

Philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi provided my favorite description of how science progresses. In Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he describes normal science, where science proceeds with small incremental discoveries within a given framework, and only very rarely is punctuated by extraordinary science requiring a completely new paradigm. One hundred years ago, physics underwent just such a paradigm shift.

The dawn of modern physics had an unlikely start. Max Planck was locked in a scientific debate with Ludwig Boltzmann and attempting to solve a persistent problem on the issue of black-body radiation. Both were physicists in the established field of thermodynamics; but Boltzmann felt a true understanding required statistical analysis of an enormous number of particles yielding the collective energetics observed. His insights were developed through a statistical approach to Entropy – the most perplexing thermodynamic quantity, commonly thought of as disorder, and the basis for the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Notably, Boltzmann’s approach allowed prediction of an absolute value for entropy and hence the Third Law. Initially, Planck was not convinced and set out to prove Boltzmann wrong; but instead he ended up laying the foundation for quantum mechanics and improving Boltzmann’s description. Their open scientific debate allowed a fundamental understanding of entropy or disorder to provide a revolutionary new order to our working theory of matter and even space-time.

Bust Mission Day PhotoEquation Mission Day Photo

Here is a picture of Ludwig Boltzmann’s tomb in Vienna. At the top, you will see the statistical equation for entropy I just mentioned. Assuming he approved this, I always wondered if he had a morbid sense of humor – putting the equation for entropy on his tombstone while his grave held the decay that accompanies death! “Death brings disorder, but Life opposes entropy.” I sometimes had to repeat this to myself to inspire patience when walking my sons to school on rainy mornings – they felt compelled to rescue each and every worm stranded on the sidewalk!

Life Science recently experienced its own paradigm shift, and the separation between the Life and Physical Sciences is disappearing. Our current understanding of the genetic code allows unprecedented insight and predictive capacity both into future cures of disorders as well as into our past as a species and the elegant relationships of all living things. Robust debate in science is helpful so long as the debate remains scientific, and that framework has encouraged an amazing blossoming of knowledge. Modern Catholic teaching sees no need for conflict between the accounts of Genesis and the tool of evolution accomplishing the good that is God’s creation. According to Ignatius Loyola, the things in this world are presented to us “so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.” I look forward to the good that will be grasped through a deeper understanding of the mechanism of evolution in realizing the beauty of life we see all around – drawing us closer to Truth and life.

About the Author: Dr. Emily A. Jarvis is currently an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Loyola Marymount University. Prior to joining LMU, she served as a chemistry professor at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, a research scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, MD, a visiting professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, and a Science Policy Fellow in the United States Senate. Her research interests include first principles characterization of inorganic and organic molecules, solid-state and nanomaterials, and electronic excited states in small molecules with particular emphasis on atomic-level mechanisms of materials failure and chemical modifications designed to enhance materials performance for clean energy. She also has professional interests in wine chemistry, high performance computing and federal science policy.