Ah, to Live in a Cosmos Again!

Anaxagoras takes the stage early in Aristotle’s Metaphysics as that sober man among drunks who rightly claims that reason is the cause behind all of nature and its beauty.[1] This same Anaxagoras, we are told, “answered a man . . . asking why one should choose rather to be born than not by saying ‘for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe.’”[2] Reason is needed to cause the beauty of the whole; only mind can make the world a cosmos. Mind is also needed to recognize that we live in a cosmos, as Seth Benardete remarks: “We see heaven and earth, but we do not see their unity, which we call cosmos. ‘Cosmos’ puts a label on an insight about the structure of the whole that is simply not available to sight.”[3] This label, “cosmos,” is rooted in the Greek verb kosmein, meaning both “to arrange” and “to order, rule” as well as “to adorn” (as in “cosmetics”). The aggregate of all that exists is a cosmos because of its adorned order, both arranged and recognized by mind: “And God saw all the things that He had made, and they were very good” (Gen 1:31).

Any human insight into “the structure of the whole” is, of its nature, an achievement with intrinsic limitations. We are limited in the extent of this insight, both as a species of knowers and as individuals, for we cannot know everything about the cosmos (the angels and God know more), and as individuals we depend upon the knowledge others have gained and must believe many things about the world. We are also limited in the manner of this insight, for we need many different types of knowledge to grapple with the whole: theology, philosophy, and the sciences. (Even the beatific ability for each one to grasp all at once has a limit.[4]) These limitations, at least in our vale of tears, inspire the production of images or models of the world. What distinguishes the modes of knowledge of theology, philosophy, and science, however, is the claim of some of them to have grasped a part that is central to the understanding of the whole. Consequently, those same limits also lead to conflicts between domains of knowledge when “the scientists” or “the theologians” make their image of the part into a microcosmic view of the whole. Now, what is impossible is true epistemological pluralism: the final coexistence of incompatible models. What is not prima facie impossible is for there to be a central piece to the puzzle. This is a striking thing. If there is a cosmos, it must be so well ordered that it permits within itself partial, and even disordered, representations of itself. How is this possible?

Our models are constructed out of answered questions and sustained through a cultural transmission of asking and answering questions of such a sort. The limitations just discussed show up again here. Even if everyone can ask questions about the world, not everyone can ask well-formed and interesting questions, and fewer can give meaningful answers. Such persons are revered as wise, as masters. Further, not every sort of answer can be given except through a variety of questions. Only in the possible totality of questions and answers about the world, and the multifaceted, laborious endeavor to sustain the cultural project of asking and answering questions such as: can a Model or Image of the world be constituted? C. S. Lewis speaks of this as singularly achieved by medieval Christian culture, which produced and maintained through the many modes of questioning and answering “a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe.”[5] Nonetheless, as a “factum,” a “something made,” this Model is subject to revision: “The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable.”[6] That is, both the medieval Image of the Cosmos, no less than ours, are halfway houses, works in progress. At least—for here we must pause—are they works in progress in some ways and not others? Surely there are foundational items not subject to revision? Lewis says:

Every Model is a construct of answered questions. The expert is engaged either in raising new questions or in giving new answers to old ones. When he is doing the first, the old, agreed Model is of no interest to him; when he is doing the second, he is beginning an operation which will finally destroy the old Model altogether.[7]

Of course, there are two other possibilities: asking old questions that have old answers, or asking new questions that, nonetheless, receive old answers. We engage in the first sort of activity when handing on a tradition, when inducting neophytes into received wisdom. We engage in the second, for example, when defending received wisdom in new contexts. By keeping all four possibilities in mind, we have a compact way of locating the logical place of the wisdom of the ages alongside the latest in scientific research. That is, we have such a way if we interpret Lewis’s schema charitably, as implying more than a facile quantitative claim about how long a question or answer has been around and introducing in the language of quantity a qualitative claim about the fundamentality and scope of certain questions and answers.

We therefore can answer the question above: usurpatious, partial, and thus disordered, images of the cosmos are possible insofar as we fail to take into account all four ways of asking and answering questions. In light of this, it is worthwhile to ask, as does Alvin Plantinga, where does the conflict really lie?[8] Is there a true conflict between religion and science? Plantinga makes no bones about his view: there is only superficial conflict between religion and science. Rather, the deep conflict is between science and naturalism, that is, between science and the philosophy of scientific materialism. However, this true source of conflict is not fully appreciated in contemporary culture. The more apparent, and more superficial, conflict is taken to be the true one. Phenomena over realities. It is worthwhile, then, to advance our discussion of disordered and discarded images of the cosmos so as to move beyond the conflict between science and religion.

Let us begin on the side of science. One can easily recall examples of progress in the annals of the history of science. What is more easily forgotten—and more easily papered over so as not to confuse the uninitiated—are the failed twists and turns and perplexing difficulties which past models encountered in their self-styled “evolution” in histories tritely written by the victors. Central to these lesser-known histories are those points of detail where the builders saw their building blocks and cornerstones fall so painfully short of making a complete model. Let us focus on three partial answers to the old question about the genesis and constitution of the universe.

For instance, return to the medieval Aristotelian model of the universe. It required that the heavens were constituted out of ether, the incorruptible fifth element, whose only possible natural motion was around the center of the universe, a motion that ether was able to carry out without end. Such was one of the Aristotelian model’s answers on the side of ancient physics, in this case its response to the question “Why does the sky look like it goes around us every day, seemingly having done so from time immemorial?” However, this answer conflicted with other heavenly phenomena: the eccentric circles and planetary epicycles required, in the mathematical model, to account for all the anomalous celestial appearances. The catch is that Aristotelian dynamics and Ptolemaic kinematics cannot both be true at the same time. If heavenly matter cannot “roll” or “loop” except about the universe’s center, how could there be rolling and looping motions in the heavens? This tension between physical and mathematical models inspired the search for a more coherent image.

Now, skip several centuries to the time of Sir Isaac Newton. Newton’s argument for universal gravity provided a key building block for a cosmological model through the idea of inertial motion. Any curvilinear motion is the result of combinations of natural linear (inertial) motions taking place somewhere in the expanse of space. So, Aristotle’s heavenly, ethereal matter that only moves in circles about the center of a finite universe is no longer needed. The difficulty in the Newtonian model arises when it attempts to explain the whole universe. This difficulty is crystallized in Olbers’ Paradox: if the universe is infinitely large and populated homogeneously by stars, the sky cannot be dark at night. Think of this as if you were in the middle of an infinitely large forest populated with trees that are, on average, evenly spaced throughout. There would be no line of sight that did not eventually end up at a tree. Analogously, Olbers’ Paradox claims that the universe would be paneled by “continuous golden walls”[9] of starlight such that no night would ever be dark.[10] Analogously, problems arise with the claim that gravity acts instantaneously across any distance (something Newton denied philosophically but could not avoid mathematically). That is, if the universe is infinitely large and populated throughout with massive objects, the gravitational potential at any point would be infinite. An instantaneously propagating field of gravity cannot co-exist with a spatially infinite, homogeneous universe. Newton himself was aware of this and at pains to explain the apparent long-lived stability of the cosmos in correspondence to Richard Bentley.[11] His model was (somehow) incomplete because of this gravity paradox, and simply stipulating a finite amount of matter in the universe, or a finite universe, would have been special pleading.

We could complete this miniature history of cosmology by appealing to the theories built upon Einstein’s general relativity, the solutions to the Einstein field equations provided by Fr. Georges Lemaître (among others), and the consensus model slowly built upon observations made, from the time of Edwin Hubble to that of the ESA’s Planck satellite, of the ancient and faraway reaches of the universe. At least, we could complete a retelling of astronomy’s history, for the model itself is known to be incomplete. The expanding Big Bang universe provides us with the resources to explain why the sky is dark at night, but the behavior of that dark night sky, governed by the attraction of gravity and the mysterious cosmological constant (a force of repulsion) completes only one part of the theoretical picture. The other part, concerning the behavior of the matter and light that illuminate that dark night sky at points, is described in the quantum theories of the other fundamental forces of nature, and nobody knows how the two scales of the very large and the very small are unified. Ideas abound, of course, and some cosmologists are turning even to philosophy to rethink how science ought to be done, all so as to get around the impasse.[12] Our scientific world-model is still under construction.

Scientists have not despaired, however. Why not? It is due to a fundamental, philosophical presupposition to science which maintains that the universe is intelligible.[13] The medieval idea of the three Books—the Book of Nature, the Scriptures, and the Book of Life—also contains such a cosmological ideal. Science retains its confidence in our ability to eventually read the Book of Nature. We do not live in an infinite “Library of Babel,” as captured—or even proven, one might argue—in the imaginative tale of Jorge Luis Borges. That this confidence is rooted in a philosophical stance, and rightly so, requires some reflection. It leads us to the heart of where the conflict really lies, to the need for an architectonic knowledge. Or, to borrow a phrase from Hauerwas, our human tradition to answering cosmological questions is not that of a people who think that “they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.”[14] There cannot be such a story.

Let us return to the “old questions, old answers” option given in Lewis’s appraisal of model world-building. It is an old answer to an old question that nature is unified and intelligible. The specific nature of this unity and intelligibility are more difficult to ascertain than the fact that nature is so. Indeed, no shortage of philosophical quandaries and paradoxes arise if one attempts to systematically deny the inner intelligibility of the cosmos. Furthermore, the possibility of handing down old answers to old questions—especially questions that are foundational to the origins and destiny of the universe and the human species as a part of it—is transformed in the presence of such intelligibility to a common cultural devotion, namely, devotion to discovering and preserving ancient cosmological truths. Such truths about the human soul, about good and evil, and about God have been discovered and rediscovered in the philosophical traditions before and since the time of Christ. During and after his time, such answers are confirmed by the traditions and teachings of the Catholic Church. Since the infancy of the modern sciences in the medieval universities—for let us call the 17th century what it was, their tempestuous adolescence—the full panoply of natural inquiry has deepened and detailed the answers to questions about the cosmological story of our origins and destiny.

The appearance of conflict between religion and science owes more to forgetting parts of the story, to forgetting the old answers to old questions and thus no longer hearing the old answers to new questions, than it does to actual contradictions. Nor need we, pace Stephen Jay Gould, advocate realms of strictly non-overlapping magisteria, for we should consider not only the sciences and theology, but also philosophy. These three overlap insofar as each offers answers to cosmological questions, that is, questions about the whole, its origin, its constitution, and its end. They are non-overlapping only if—to borrow a scholastic distinction—one thinks of them formally rather than materially, if one distinguishes between the common questions they answer and how they provide those answers in distinct ways. Consequently, the sciences, philosophy, and theology can be materially coextensive, are formally distinct, but unite in a cultural circumincession constituting our model of the cosmos.

This unity between the three modes of knowledge commonly recognized as ultimate by society today is indeed demanded by the old answer to the old question about the unified intelligibility of the world: “Truth cannot contradict truth.”[15] However, this unity can be recognized only by two of those modes: theology and philosophy. This flows from the old medieval argument, employed by St. Thomas Aquinas, to defend the use of philosophical reasoning in theology:

Gifts of grace are added to those of nature in such a way that they do not destroy the latter, but rather perfect them; wherefore also the light of faith, which is gratuitously infused into our minds, does not destroy the natural light of cognition, which is in us by nature. For although the natural light of the human mind is insufficient to reveal those truths revealed by faith, yet it is impossible that those things which God has manifested to us by faith should be contrary to those which are evident to us by natural knowledge. In this case one would necessarily be false: and since both kinds of truth are from God, God would be the author of error, a thing which is impossible.[16]

The argument moves from the comparison between the light of faith to the light of reason to the habits of knowledge founded upon those “lights” or capacities, the truths of the faith and truths available to natural reason. The impossibility of contradiction between these two lights is a metaphysical reason: God is the author of both. Now, theology can positively recognize this compatibility between faith and reason insofar as both come from God. Philosophy, at its height, could negatively recognize such compatibility by arguing that God could reveal further truths than those already promulgated in the Book of Nature. That is, philosophers could recognize metaphysically the limitations of natural reason and the possible sources of truth so as to make room for faith, although they could not determine with the same metaphysical certitude which faith is true. This metaphysical self-reflection, however, is unavailable to the sciences as such, limited as they are to empirical methods. Consequently, we can conclude by way of corollary that if there is a claim to true contradiction between science and religion, some intermediary philosophical agent is responsible: an error in natural reasoning. St. Thomas concluded that on the side of reason one requires an architectonic mode—philosophy as handmaiden to theology—ready to defend the truths of the faith and refute the philosophical and scientific errors claiming to contradict the faith.

Nonetheless, even though scientists have not despaired of finding answers to the ultimate questions asked by the various natural sciences, many Catholics and Christians no longer recognize in our cosmological models the world Christ visited. The tradition of answers to old questions of faith appears in many respects as a mere story, no longer part of the believable cultural narrative. The world created and redeemed by the Nazarene is not the world of the massively evolutionary universe of Big Bang theory or the post-Darwinian synthesis of DNA and evo-devo. The theoretical receptivity of the human mind to scientific truth, inculcated collectively in modern culture, appears to freeze and deaden our receptivity to theological truth.

Our reflection on old questions and answers and a common story of origins demands a new mode. The sciences cannot see the unity that is possible between faith and reason, due to their intrinsic methodological limitations. The Church teaches this harmony positively, and philosophy can affirm its possibility. Yet the philosophers of old were not led by pure reason but by wounded natural reason, and were nonetheless moved by a natural love for the cosmos they attempted to know. Their affective responses were outlined in theories of human happiness rooted in cosmological-scale metaphysics. The truth perfects the mind, but the good perfects things, and this goodness draws the knower from his world of theory to the concrete world-drama of history. This experience is what moved St. Paul to switch from his high-flown philosophical rhetoric in the Areopagus to the immediacy of Christ on the cross (cf. Acts 17; 1 Cor 1:23). Reason and the heart are confronted with the claim that God has entered history, with witnesses to “what happened in history and is still happening now.”[17] The religious, philosophical, and scientific modes of the soul’s graced and natural receptivity to truth must be answered definitively not by a philosopher or scientist’s love of nature as a marvelous object, but by a love for the Author of nature. It is that wonder beyond our expectation that the Author of the story in which we find ourselves taking part has written himself into the story, as a lowly but central piece, and given himself a human face, a human name, and the most beloved among human mothers. This is the grand narrative of all history in which all our other stories about atoms and galaxies and brain synapses are mere bit parts, but somehow also permitted to reflect something of the whole.

We can too easily tire of seeking the harmony in truth among these theological, philosophical, and scientific modes of human inquiry. We can easily see the importance of such debates in the grand scales of arguments about human origins and the Adamic Fall, or creation and the Big Bang. We no less easily identify these overlapping magisteria in questions of individual human happiness and the common good. However, we must recognize that the universality of the principle that nature is perfected by grace entails a universality of topics where the human sciences are challenged and humbled by a font of knowledge beyond their proper domains. To take but one relevant example, the theology of celibacy and marital chastity demands a sound philosophical and even scientific defense against opponents of these Catholic ideals who marshal arguments at the level of philosophical anthropology and sexual psychology. It is the challenge of our time to dissolve bad philosophical objections with better philosophical reasoning. The first step is to recognize that the conflict really lies between philosophies: those that reject and those that can accept Christ.[18]

Among the steps to be taken afterwards, we should return to something akin to Anaxagoras’s spirit. Since the ancient and medieval models of the world have been discarded, it has become easier for modern science to spin philosophical tales about a merely material cosmos living out a purely purposeless history. The evolution, flux, and instability of being appears reflected in the instability of cultural mores and a lack of lasting traditions. However, perhaps the new image should merely turn this presence of history in the essence of the universe to our advantage. The life of God endures perfectly and all contained in an eternal moment. God instructs the angelic choirs in meta-historical instants of pure insight, where the more perfect angels imitate more closely God’s all-encompassing eternity. The lower angels decline away from such perfection, falling closer to the human mind and its need for time-bound thought among interlocutors, or history.[19] Such angelic universes have no need for matter or time, since they achieve their natures’ end-goals from innate conceptual and voluntary resources. Our minds might be something like a tabula rasa, but the angelic mind is sicut tabula picta, a painted tablet full of thought.[20] It is our sort of mind, the human mind, that needs to turn outward to a spatiotemporal matrix. It is the nature of the human soul’s desire for truth and love that demand a history to the cosmos. What the sciences have further uncovered in our time is the extent to which such a history penetrates to the heart of what it means to be a cosmos. The atoms that build our bones need stars to die if they are to exist, and the variety of biological species, existing so as to imitate God and instruct us, is not only displayed at all scales at one time but over geological timescales. The gallery of natural kinds is a rotating exhibit.[21] If God through natural history brings us news about the great cosmological truths of creation, then God through salvation history can also bring us the good news of Christ resurrected. This is the story, this the image of the world in time, which makes possible its fullness of time: “For the Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth.” (Jer 31:22) While the medieval model thought the world was imperfect “insofar as it exists in a state of motion, not simply speaking,”[22] the modern model turns this imperfection into a scientific advent:

If the cosmos is history, and if matter represents a moment in the history of spirit, then there is no such thing as an eternal, neutral combination of matter and spirit; rather, there is a final “complexity” in which the world finds its omega and unity. In that case there is a final connection between matter and spirit in which the destiny of man and of the world is consummated, even if it is impossible for us today to define the nature of this connection. In that case there is a “Last Day,” on which the destiny of the individual man becomes full because the destiny of mankind is fulfilled. The goal of the Christian is not private bliss but the whole.[23]

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.3.

[2] Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, I.5, 1216a11–12.

[3] Seth Benardete, The Tragedy and Comedy of Life: On Plato's Philebus (University of Chicago Press, 1993), 162–163.

[4] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 12, a. 8. (link)

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 11.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] See Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011).

[9] See Edward Harrison, Darkness at Night: A Riddle of the Universe (Harvard University Press, 1989) 146–50, and Edgar Allan Poe, Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1892) 193–94: “Even the spiritual vision, is it not at all points arrested by the continuous golden walls of the universe?”

[10] See also Stanley L. Jaki, The Paradox of Olbers’ Paradox: A Case History of Scientific Thought (Pinckney, Mich.: Herder and Herder, 1969) 133–46. The argument phrased qualitatively as being lost in a forest is taken from James M. Overduin and Paul S. Wesson, The Light/Dark Universe: Light From Galaxies, Dark Matter And Dark Energy (New Jersey: World Scientific, 2008) 2.

[11] See also Edward Harrison, “Newton and the Infinite Universe,” Physics Today 39, no. 2 (February 1986): 24–32.

[12] See Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[13] On this and other presuppositions to science, see Mariano Artigas, The Mind of the Universe: Understanding Science and Religion (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001).

[14] Stanley Hauerwas, “The End of American Protestantism,” ABC Religion and Ethics, July 2, 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/07/02/3794561.htm.

[15] Pope St. John Paul II, “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution,” 22 October 1996. (link)

[16] See St. Thomas, Super Boetium de Trinitate, q. 2, a. 3, c., translation by Rose E. Brennan, S.H.N; see also St. Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason, and Theology: Questions I-IV of His Commentary on the “De Trinitate” of Boethius, trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1987).

[17] Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, trans. Viviane Hewitt (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998) 32.

[18] We say “can accept,” of course, because faith is ultimately an undeserved gift.

[19] See St. Thomas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Anima, a. 7, c., and Charles De Koninck, Ego Sapientia (originally pubished in 1943), in The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume Two, ed. and trans. by R. McInerny (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) 23-26.

[20] See St. Thomas, De Veritate, q. 8, a. 5, s.c. 3.

[21] I credit Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, with this image that shows how to recover the Thomistic doctrine in question. See his essay “The Fittingness of Evolutionary Creation,” available here.

[22] See St. Thomas, De Potentia, q. 5, a. 9, c.

[23] Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd Edition, Revised (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) 358.

Featured Image: Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


John Brungardt

John Brungardt is a postdoctoral fellow at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and he researches, writes, and lectures about the philosophy of cosmology. He and his wife live in Santiago, Chile.

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