What is Life?

We have finally finished up the reading for 2015, ending the first year of the Great Books Reading Project with Erwin Schrodinger’s What is Life?, which provides us with a look at some of the questions we have been exploring in the readings over the past year from the perspective of a 20th century scientist. Though I was previously familiar with Schrodinger’s famous cat thought-experiment, this was my first time reading any of his works.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a 20th century scientist in such firm contact with the preceding scientific and even religious and philosophical thought. Sadly, it is rare today to find a scientist who is conversant in the liberal arts (and, vice versa, someone conversant in the liberal arts who is also able to speak coherently and knowledgeably on scientific topics). This is a sad state of affairs as today, in the wake of the eugenics movement and the invention of nuclear weaponry in the 20th century, the restoration of science to its place as one of the humanities (that is, properly speaking, one means of studying human existence and experience) is a necessity. In his ability to speak cogently on literature, philosophy, religion, and history in addition to physics and biology, Schrodinger reminded me Jacob Bronowski, whose Science and Human Values is perhaps the best exploration of this subject I have yet read.

Through What is Life?, but especially in the final chapter, in which Schrodinger attempts to reconcile the earlier discussions of genetics with man’s inherent sense of freedom of will and volition, I was also reminded of Jacques Barzun’s commentaries on modern science, particularly in his From Dawn to Decadence. While Barzun’s writings are packed full of insights, one in particular that has long stood out to me is his contention that modern genetics, and the sort of determinism it posits, is, in a sense, part of a return to the fatalism of the ancients. Schrodinger’s appeal to Upanishadic monism as the means of reconciliation between modern physics and human freedom certainly seems to be a demonstration of Barzun’s observation.

And just as the modern world has, in some sense, cycled around to give the ancient superstitions another turn, so will we next month. It seems quite fitting to launch now, as we will, into Homer’s Illiad, a story about the relationship between fate and freedom.

Book review: The Mind of the Universe: Understanding Science and Religion by Mariano Artigas

On one extreme of the debate concerning science and religion today are those who mistake the stagnant and mechanistic view of the universe propagating by certain Enlightenment thinkers for the mainstream of Christian thought. On the other extreme are those who mistake the naturalistic methodology of modern science for a system of metaphysics. Both extremes, the creationists and the atheists/physicalists, ultimately undermine science itself. Each wants to reduce science to a state in which it cannot function and to undermine the two foundational pillars of Western Civilization: faith and reason.
In this book, Father Mariano Artigas sets the record straight, philosophically, historically, and theologically. He begins by giving us a tour of the history of science and where the ontological and epistemological presuppositions that underpin it emerged from. He moves on to demonstrating that without these presuppositions, which are being undermined by extreme movements within and around science, science itself must cease to exist as we know it and all scientific knowledge is undermined. Finally, he offers us a vision of a worldview that takes both science and religion, or physics and metaphysics, into account in a serious way and integrates the entirety of the human experience.
Throughout, Artigas is thorough in both his argumentation and his documentation. There is hardly a page in his book without references to some of the greatest thinkers of the modern era or of earlier periods, such as Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Popper. There is hardly an assertion put forward for which he does not provide a great deal of substantiating evidence and heavy argumentation.
Artigas’s book is a needed corrective both to those who posit an anti-scientific creationism and those who posit an overly scientific scientism. To the creationists, he shows that science is the natural outgrowth of Judeo-Christian thought and that its recent findings fit perfectly well in line with the traditional Christian view of the universe as evolutionary, emergent, and creative. To the scientistic naturalists, he demonstrates that such a view does not and cannot follow logically from science itself and even moves in opposition to the newest findings of scientific research. To all of us, he shows a vision of the universe as guided by a Great Mind with whom we must choose to come into communion and cooperation.
The Mind of the Universeis the best book that I have yet read on the subject of science and religion. It is thorough in its treatment of the topic and a must-read for all who are interested.