When we ask, as some of us occasionally do, whether it is possible to discover or establish a true consonance between the modern sciences and theology, we are asking a question prompted first of all by nostalgia. We are casting a perhaps somewhat forlorn glance back, on the one hand, to a period four or five centuries ago, before any estrangement had begun to take shape between “natural philosophy” and theology, and before mechanistic models of the physical order had begun to evolve into a metaphysical naturalism; but also, on the other hand (and much more essentially), we are looking back to an almost timeless moment of innocence, at once immemorial and yet intimately known to each of us, when we were as yet unaware of any distinctions between different spheres of inquiry, let alone any dissonances among them.
We all remember, without being able quite to recall it with any immediacy, the first dawn of wonder within us: that instant when the infinitely open question of everything posed itself to us all at once, but when it had not yet become a specific question about anything as such. Every attempt to know the truth of the world in later life—empirical, theoretical, hermeneutical, critical, speculative, spiritual—begins for all of us in an instant of naive surprise before the mystery of being, an unanticipated experience of the sheer fortuity and givenness of the world, a sudden fleeting moment of limpid awareness when one knows simultaneously the utter strangeness of everything familiar and the utter contingency of everything presumed.
This is that existential amazement that, as Plato and Aristotle both affirmed, first awakens us to the love of wisdom: an aboriginal summons to which, so long as we recall even the faintest shimmering trace of its uncanniness, we must remain faithful all our lives. And, at first, this primordial vocation is the same for everyone, as are the first stirrings of a response; no alienations are yet possible. But the initial moment passes, boundless possibility contracts into the actuality of a multitude of finite and divergent paths, habits of thought and decisions of the will make the luminous simplicity of the original experience ever more difficult to recollect, and at the last the mystery is lost somewhere amid the tangles of our methods and our prejudices. The day is long; the light of dawn soon fades from memory.
If we persist in asking the question long enough to allow that initial wistfulness to dissipate, however, and begin to pose it in more concrete terms, we all at once conjure up a host of ancillary questions, the most obvious of which is what precisely we think our words really mean. “Science,” even more than “theology,” is an abstraction, however disposed we may be today to imagine that it names a clearly defined realm of practices, comprising exact rules of method and comprehensive principles of evidence. Moreover, “modern science,” in particular, is a distinct culture, with all the historical, linguistic, and conceptual conditionality that this entails; and every culture incubates within itself, even if only tacitly and tenuously, certain metaphysical presuppositions: what, for instance, constitutes reason; what the limits of knowledge are; what questions ought to be asked; which methods of inquiry should be presumed to reflect reality and which should be regarded only as useful fictions.
And it is here, at the level of culture, that the truly irreconcilable conflicts between scientific and theological thinking are inevitably found; for in most circumstances it is not what we can prove but what we presuppose that determines what we think we know or imagine we have discovered. Before we can pose the question of the consonance between theology and the sciences, therefore, we must first make sure that we know what territories these cultures properly encompass, and whether there are still any to which both at once might be able to lay some legitimate claim. Otherwise we are likely to careen across boundaries we do not even know exist. For what it is worth, these days the most inept incursions and encroachments tend to come more often from the side of the sciences. Perhaps theologians have by now been sufficiently chastened by the memories of theology’s past trespasses and so can see the lines of demarcation with greater clarity. At least, it would be a very poorly trained theologian indeed who produced anything as philosophically confused or as engorged with category errors as Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing (2013), or who exhibited a comparable ignorance of the difference between aetiological queries about our universe’s origin from an antecedent physical state and modal queries about the possibility of physical existence as such—between, that is, cosmology and ontology.
Nor can one imagine any serious theologian venturing interventions in the sciences as reckless as Richard Dawkins’s maladroit attempts to master Thomas’s quinque viae (at which one can only wince in pity and then look away). From whichever side the interlopers come, however, our first impulse when confronted by the conceptual disasters they perpetrate is, naturally enough, simply to reassert proper boundaries. To avoid the ghastly spectacle of Richard Dawkins attempting to philosophize, we are all too happy to adopt something like Stephen Gould’s strict discrimination between two “non-overlapping magisteria,” one concerned with facts, the other with values. But this achieves only the consonance of segregation—and at the cost of intolerably reductive accounts of both spheres. After all, the sciences invoke questions not only of physical origins, properties, and processes but also (even if only indirectly) of their intrinsic intelligibility, rational coherence, and even modal plausibility, which inevitably touch upon questions that classical theology asks as well.
Yes, quite obviously, the physical sciences have nothing to say about dogmatic theology—say, Trinitarian doctrine or Chalcedonian Christology—which concern hermeneutical approaches to particular historical events, social practices, personal and communal experiences of salvation, or allegedly revealed truths. But there is also theology in the wider sense, as delineated by, say, Proclus or the Pseudo-Dionysius or Shankara or Nicholas of Cusa or Mulla Sadra, which embraces a set of logical and speculative claims about reality as a whole, and about an ultimate coincidence between its rational structure and its actual existence. And each of these claims entails still further deductive claims regarding the divine ground of all that is: that, when reduced to its deepest source or most irreducible ontological premise, nature proves to be contingent ultimately not on some material substrate or order but much more originally upon something analogous to mind, spirit, Geist—something, moreover, that is not simply yet another force among forces or being among beings but the infinite plenitude of both being and rational order, in which all finite things participate. And in regard to these deductions, curiously enough, the sciences are not irrelevant, even if they are in some sense only preliminary. (But I shall return to this below.)
Rather, then, than discrete magisteria absorbed in absolutely discontinuous regions of concern, it might seem better to adopt something closer to Thomas’s distinction between theology and philosophy (including natural philosophy) and to say that we are concerned here with two autonomous practices of understanding, each of which encompasses vast areas of investigation concerning which the other has no competence, but which occasionally both converge upon the same area, albeit each according to its own idiom and constraints. Thus, for Thomas, both natural philosophy and theology may have a great deal to say about God (for instance), though the former might do so chiefly in terms of a Prime Mover or primary causality while the latter might do so chiefly in terms of the creator of heaven and earth or the Father of Christ.
Even here, though, we risk making the issue of consonance too easy, if for no other reason than that a solution drawn from the high Middle Ages presumes a unified intellectual culture that, for better or worse, simply no longer exists. In a sense, the “scientistic” polemicist who stumbles across unseen disciplinary boundaries in an ultracrepidarian stupor is not always entirely in the wrong; there are now in fact contested territories where the dissonances are quite real. Certainly, before all else, there can be no accord reached between any theistic logic and the tacit mechanistic or physicalist or emergentist materialist metaphysics that so deeply informs much of the culture of the sciences today. And if we are seeking a consonance that consists in more than a few sporadic embassies between two otherwise alien realms, we have to interrogate precisely those cultural premises that now truly divide us.
This is a rather delicate matter, naturally, because it involves a confrontation at a level that many in the sciences do not even acknowledge exists: that of their own metaphysical presuppositions. The first task, then, is to make the hidden metaphysical horizon of the modern sciences appear to view, and then perhaps to call it into question: not of course by simplistically conflating the cosmological and the ontological, as Krauss and Dawkins do, but rather by asking whether that essentially mechanistic picture of reality is adequate even to the realm of the physical. And I suspect that the best way to do this is to consider and reconsider the language of causality.
The extraordinary fruitfulness of modern scientific method was achieved, before all else, by a severe narrowing of investigative focus; and this involved the willful shedding of an older language of causality that possessed great richness but that also seemed to resist empirical investigation. The first principle of the new organon was a negative one: the exclusion of any consideration of formal and final causes, and even of any distinct principle of “life,” in favor of an ideally inductive method purged of metaphysical prejudices, allowing all natural systems to be conceived as mere machine processes, all real causality as an exchange of energy through antecedent forces working upon material mass, and all real objectivity as the mathematical measurement of relative magnitudes. Everything physical became, in a sense, reducible to the mechanics of local motion; even complex organic order came to be understood as the emergent result of physical forces moving through time from past to future as if through Newtonian space, producing consequences that were all mathematically calculable, with all discrete physical causes ultimately reducible to the most basic level of material existence.
And while, at first, many of the thinkers of early modernity were content to draw brackets around physical nature and to allow for the existence of realities beyond the physical—mind, soul, disembodied spirits, God—they necessarily imagined these latter as being essentially extrinsic to the purely mechanical order that they animated, inhabited, or created. Thus, in place of classical theism’s metaphysics of participation in a God of infinite being and rationality, they granted room only for the adventitious and finite Cosmic Mechanic or Supreme Being of Deism or (as it is called today) intelligent design theory.
But, of course, this ontological liberality was unsustainable. Reason abhors a dualism. Any ultimate ground of explanation must be one that unites all dimensions of being in a simpler, more conceptually parsimonious principle. Thus, inevitably, what began as method soon metastasized into a metaphysics, almost by inadvertence. For a truly scientific view of reality, it came to be believed, everything—even mind—must be reducible to one and the same mechanics of motion. Those methodological brackets that had been so helpfully drawn around the physical order now became the very shape of reality itself.
It was always something of a fantasy, of course. For one thing, even as a method, the mechanical model extends only so far. Pure induction is an impossible ideal. In the life sciences, for instance, organisms can only very rarely be investigated without any hypothetical appeals to purpose whatsoever, or without treating organic structures as intentional systems; and it is only a metaphysical prejudice that dictates that purposive language is no more than a useful and dispensable fiction. Moreover, before “higher causes” like form and finality could be excised from the grammar of the sciences, they had first to be radically misconstrued. Even such residual Aristotelian terminology as remained in the sciences had already, by the late sixteenth century, been mechanized, so to speak.
One need only read Francis Bacon to confirm this. Form and finality had come to be seen as physical forces or influences extrinsic to a material substrate that in itself was not the pure potentiality of prime matter but merely a universal, subtle, ductile, unarticulated physical substance. The elements of nature were not imagined, as they had been in the classical and mediaeval synthesis, as having an intrinsic disposition toward order or vital integrity; they were seen simply as inert ingredients upon which formal determinations were adventitiously impressed, under the external guidance of final causes that operated merely as factitious designs. And so, seen thus, form and finality soon came to seem not only superfluous suppositions but little more than features of an inferior and obsolete mechanical model.
But, of course, one cannot really reject something one does not understand. Neither Aristotle’s concept of an aition nor any Scholastic concept of a causa actually corresponds to what we—following our early modern predecessors—mean when we speak of a “cause.” A better rendering of aitia or causae, in the ancient or mediaeval sense, might be “explanations,” “rationales,” “logical descriptions,” or (still better) “rational relations.” The older fourfold nexus of causality was not, that is to say, a defective attempt at modern physical science but instead chiefly a grammar of predication, describing the inherent logical structure of anything that exists insofar as it exists, and reflecting a world in which things and events are at once discretely identifiable and yet part of the larger dynamic continuum of the whole.
It was a simple logical picture of a reality in which both stability and change can be recognized and described. And these aitia or causae were intrinsic and indiscerptibly integral relations, distinct dimensions of a single causal logic, not separated forces in only accidental alliance. A final cause, for instance, was an inherent natural end, not an extrinsically imposed design; and this was true even when teleology involved external uses rather than merely internal perfections (as in the case of human artifacts); it was at once a thing’s intrinsic fullness and its external participation in the totality of nature. Thus, in the Liber de causis (that mysterious digest and theological synthesis of the metaphysics of Proclus that entered Western Scholasticism from the Islamic philosophical world), one of the principal “causes” of any isolated substance is the taxonomic category in which that thing subsists, the more “eminent” rational structure to which it belongs. In a sense, a causal relation in this scheme is less like a physical interaction or exchange of energy than it is like a mathematical equation, or like the syntax of a coherent sentence. Admittedly, this is a picture of reality that comes from ages in which it was assumed that the structure of the world was analogous to the structure of rational thought. But, then again, this was an eminently logical assumption—if only because there appears to be a more than illusory or accidental reciprocal openness between mind and world, and because the mind appears genuinely able to penetrate the physical order by way of irreducibly noetic practices like mathematics and logic.
In any event, perhaps it really was necessary to impose the discipline of this impoverished causal language upon the scientific intellect, if only to direct its attention to the finest and humblest of empirical details. But even so, as Hegel so brilliantly demonstrated, one can never really reason purely from the particular. Once the notion of causality has been reduced from an integral system of rationales to a single kind of local physical efficiency, it becomes a mere brute fact, something of a logical black box; description flourishes, but only because explanation has been left to wither. So it was that Hume, having seen the spectral causal agencies of the Schoolmen chased away, found causality itself now to be imponderable, logically reducible to nothing but an arbitrary sequence of regular phenomenal juxtapositions; even mathematical descriptions of events now became nothing more than reiterations of an episodic narrative without clear logical necessity. And this is indeed where we remain.
Wherever induction fails to provide us with a clear physicalist narrative for especially complex or exceptional phenomena (like life or consciousness), we now must simply presume the existence and force of physico-mechanical laws sufficient to account for the emergence of such phenomena; and we must, moreover, do so no less casually and vaguely than those Schoolmen of old supposedly presumed “obscure” or “occult” formal and final causes. We are no less dogmatic than our ancestors; we merely have fewer clear reasons for the dogmas we embrace. The older physical logic was coherent, though speculative; the newer is incoherent, though empirical. When mechanistic method became a metaphysics, and the tinted filter through which it viewed nature was mistaken for an unveiling of nature’s deepest principles, all explanations became tales of emergence, even in cases of realities—life, consciousness, even existence itself—where such tales seemed difficult to distinguish from stories of magic.
Nowhere is the essential arbitrariness of this picture of reality more obvious than in the alleged principle of the “causal closure of the physical,” which is so often invoked as a scientifically established truth (on the rather thin basis of the fixed proportionality of matter and energy in the universe), but which is merely a metaphysical dogma, and one that even otherwise sophisticated theorists often translate into the crudest kind of physical determinism. I have known learned physicists who still talk as if—at least, once reality passes over the threshold of quantum decoherence—something like Laplace’s fantasy holds true: a demon of superlative intelligence, knowing at a given instant the precise location and momentum of every atomic particle in existence, could both reconstruct the entire physical history of the universe and foresee its entire future. True, these physicists might all have granted that statistical thermodynamics probably dictates that this would not be literally possible; but still they spoke as if, in principle, all events at higher levels of physical organization must be reducible—without remainder—to lower, more particulate causal moments.
Hence, if our demon could somehow account for irreversibility or quantum indeterminacies—maybe by a perfect grasp of maximum entropy thermodynamics or by an occult knowledge of quantum hidden variables—he could, from the dispositions of all the atoms and molecules composing me and my environment last Wednesday at noon, have infallibly predicted my presence here today, because everything we do is the inevitable macroscopic result of the ensemble of impersonal physical forces underlying our formal existence. And yet we know this to be false. This is the special absurdity of allowing an artificial method appropriate to an isolated facet of reality—nature considered as a machine, which is to say nature considered as though devoid of anything analogous to purposive intellect—to hypertrophy into a universal judgment on all of reality, including those of its aspects—such as, obviously, those instances of purposive intellect that actually exist—to which such a method cannot possibly apply.
To whatever degree I am a physical system, I am also an intentional “system” whose mental events take the forms of semeiotic (symbolic, interpretive) determinations, and whose actions are usually the consequences of intentions that are irreducibly teleological. As such, these intentions could appear nowhere within a reductive account of the discrete processes that constitute my actions as physical events; for final causes are not visible within any inventory of the impersonal antecedent physical events composing me. Simply said, I have reasons for being here, and reasons are qualitatively unlike mechanical forces, even when inseparably allied to them. Any good phenomenological description of my choice to be here would be one that could never be collapsed into a physical description of atomic, molecular, or even brain events. Yes, of course, at the level of the exchanges of matter and energy—or of their interchangeable mathematical values—the natural order may always have to even out into an inflexible equation. But the movement of those material and energetic forces is also directed by causal (or rational) relations of a different kind, which impose upon the flow of physical events formal and final determinations that are not merely the phenomenal residue of those events, and that are not visible to those aforementioned physical inventories.
The obvious physicalist riposte to this, of course, is to claim that all intentionality is in some sense illusory, or reducible to complex electrochemical brain events, which are in turn reducible to molecular description, and then to atomic description, and so on. But that too is obviously false. Not that I have the time here to argue the point comprehensively (even if I thought it necessary). I will simply note that, over the past few years of my research in philosophy and science of mind, I have become more than convinced that every attempt to fit mental phenomena—qualitative consciousness, unity of apprehension, intentionality, reasoning, and so forth—into a physicalist narrative must prove a total failure. If nothing else, mental intentionality—in the full philosophical sense not only of determinations of the will but of every act of the mind in orienting itself toward specific ends, meanings, aspects of reality, and so on—is clearly a part of nature, and yet one whose irreducibly teleological structure is entirely contrary to the mechanical picture. This is why, among devout philosophical physicalists, such wild extremes as eliminativism and materialist panpsychism (with or without the supplement of the currently fashionable pseudoscience of “integrated information theory”) are ever more in vogue. The mental, it turns out, is no more reconcilable to the modern picture of material nature than it was in Descartes’s day.
Nor need we confine ourselves to the realm of the mental to call the mechanistic picture into question. It may well be that a conception of causality richer than what materialist orthodoxy can provide will ultimately prove just as necessary for molecular and evolutionary biology. At least, this is where a more diverse causal language seems constantly to be attempting to assert itself—top-down causation, circular causality, epigenetic information, symbiogenesis, teleonomy, convergent evolution, systems biology—even as traditional genetocentric neo-Darwinism strives to contain that language within its more linear narrative. And this is not simply on account of the failure of the human genome project to yield the master key to the entire mystery of life, from protein-folding to my love of Glenn Gould or Ella Fitzgerald.
Life appears to be structurally hierarchical not only because evolution is a cumulative process, in which more complex levels are gradually superimposed upon lower, self-sufficient levels, but because every discrete organism possesses a causal architecture in which there can be no single privileged level of causation; each level depends on levels both above and below it, and none of these levels can be intelligibly isolated from the others as a kind of causal “base.” At least, such is the contention of Denis Noble, perhaps the subtlest champion of systems biology or (as he also calls it) “biological relativity.”
Maybe there was a time when one could innocently think in terms of a master ground or center of life, with the DNA molecule as the primordial genetic repository of information (whatever that means). And perhaps it seemed to make sense to understand life in terms of a very simple dichotomy between replicators and vehicles (those clever selfish genes and the organic “robots” they program for their survival). Now though, argues Noble, we can scarcely even define a gene, let alone identify any genetic explanation of the entirety of living systems; nor can we ignore the degree to which DNA sequences are passive causes, variously informed and given expression as determined by the organism and its environment.
And for Noble there is a special kind of beauty in the exquisite complexity of organic life; he positively delights in the interdependent simultaneity of all of life’s functions, the way in which each level at once assembles the components of an immediately lower level while itself constituting a component of an immediately higher level: atoms, molecules, networks, organelles, cells, tissues, organs, holosomatic systems, complete organisms, populations, species, clades, the physical environment . . . He even, daringly enough, talks freely of natural teleology—in part because he understands that such teleology, properly understood, is an intrinsic rational determination within a complex system, not a factitious purpose extrinsically imposed by some detached designing intelligence, but in larger part because there clearly are levels of explanation at which purpose constitutes not just an illusory epiphenomenon of inherently purposeless material processes but a real causal power. An organ, no matter how stochastic its phylogenic history, exists within an organism because of the purpose it serves, apart from which it would not exist. And these levels are not reducible to one another but exist only as a totality. Within the hierarchy of relations, there may be discrete levels of organization but no independent causal functions. The entire structure is a profoundly logical and purposive whole.
Now, maybe this intentional structure somehow emerges—biochemically and phylogenically—from very primitive causes, which then become ingredients in a recursive system of interactions that were originally random or chaotic, and is therefore still reducible to a state prior to “purpose.” But, unless we are using the word emergence as a synonym for miracle or magic, we are still obliged to assume that the formal determinations of organic complexity—or, as we now call it, their “information”—are already present in those causes in at least latent or virtual form, awaiting explication in developed phenotypes (and other “molar” forms); and so we are also obliged to assume that whatever rational relations may exist in organisms (including form and finality) are already present in those seemingly random states. That is to say, we need not assume that, prior to the complex unity of a living system, some extrinsic “design” existed within its material substrate like a kind of algorithm programmed by an intelligent designer; but we cannot doubt that everything that enters into the structure of a living system is already constituted by those rational causal relations that allow discrete purposive systems to arise. Even if we cannot say how life began, or how self-replicating organisms became available for natural selection, we can certainly doubt that those “higher” causal relations are accidental accretions upon some single isolated aspect of their relations. Irreducible emergence is a logical nonsense; whatever properties appear in an effect, unless imposed adventitiously, are already implicit in its “lower” causes, even if only in a kind of virtual state. Perhaps even matter, then, in its barest constitution, already has something of the character of mind.
Even Noble, I should note, does not appreciate quite how radical the consequences of a hierarchical view of life might prove. At one point in his book Dance to the Music of Life, he invokes the old experiment of placing, say, a dozen metronomes on a wooden table and setting each in motion independently; over time, the initially asynchronous oscillations of the metronomes will become perfectly synchronized, solely as the result of the chaotic interactions of the vibrations passing between them through the resonant material of the table. This, he argues, is a splendid example of an “initial disorder becoming highly ordered by interaction.” But this is wrong. Actually, it is a case of an initial complexity, stochastically but intricately syncopated, reduced over time to uniformity—which is to say, maximal equilibrium achieved by subsidence to a minimal expenditure of energy. This is not the emergence of order, but a descent into an entropic state, which preserves only such order as it cannot entirely eliminate (though in time, if left undisturbed, even this order will vanish, as table and metronomes alike resolve into dust). To fit the picture that Noble’s account of life adumbrates, the oscillations of the metronomes would have to arrive not at perfect synchrony but at something like the contrapuntal intricacies of a Buddy Rich cadenza or of Javanese and Balinese gamelan.
Then again, perhaps one need not look either to molecular and evolutionary biology or to the phenomena of mental life to see that the mechanical model of nature is defective. Really, perhaps, it is enough simply to consider the seemingly indivisible relation that exists between them in the very encounter between nature and mind: the intelligibility of the world and the power of thought to lay hold of it. Perhaps all we need consider is how it is that the inherently formal and intentional structure of rational thought seems to correspond so fruitfully to the rational structure of the world. This by itself invites us to reconsider something at least like causal language proposed in Aristotelian tradition, in which (again) nature’s deepest rational relations are more like the syntax of a sentence or mathematical equations than like mere accidental concrescences of physical forces.
Perhaps modern prejudice has the matter backwards; perhaps it is mechanism that should be regarded as the dispensable methodological fiction, while the purposive language we use to isolate specific organic functions is a true reflection of reality. Perhaps mechanistic models never were anything more than artificial constraints, by which discrete processes might be prescinded from a whole that, in itself, has something like the structure of intentional thought. After all, it is absurd to think that a model created by the willful exclusion of all mental properties from our picture of nature could then be used to account for the mental itself; and yet the mental is quite real, and quite at home within the natural order. If, then, one presumes a reductively physicalist model of all reality but is then confronted by any aspect of nature that, as in the case of consciousness or intentionality, proves utterly resistant to mechanical description, the only responsible course of action is to abandon or suspend the model in regard to the whole of nature. If the phenomenon cannot be eliminated, the model is false.
Nor can we stop there. Once again, a certain principle of logical parsimony asserts itself here and then invites or even obliges us completely to reverse our original supposition. Reason abhors a dualism, as I have said; ideally all phenomena should be reducible to a single, simpler, more capacious model of reality. Far from continuing to banish mind from our picture of nature, then, perhaps we should reconsider the ancient intuition that nature and mind are not alien to one another precisely because nature already possesses a rational structure analogous to thought. Perhaps the ground of the possibility of regular physical causation, in the energetic and mechanical sense, is a deeper logical coinherence of rational relations underlying all reality; and hence mind inhabits physical nature not as an anomaly but as a revelation of the deepest essence of everything that exists. The intentionality of mind then is neither a ghostly agency inexplicably haunting a machine nor an illusion reducible to non-intentional and impersonal forces but instead the most intense and luminous expression of those formal and teleological determinations that give actuality to all nature. What makes us believe we should—or, for that matter, can—think otherwise?
What difference might all this make for the sciences, practically speaking? Little or none, really. The sciences need not aspire to total exhaustive explanation; they are often most powerful when they consist largely in local and narrow investigations, and then in theoretical interpretations of very particular discoveries. For the culture of the sciences, however, as well as for a true consonance (rather than a mere amicable segregation) between the sciences and theology, it could scarcely be more consequential. For one thing, it is always a salubrious hygiene to be reminded of the limits of our methods; and, for anyone committed to the search for truth, it is always wise to think about the universal frame of reality within which one’s investigations take place. If one does this, one may approach a place where both the deepest aspirations of the sciences and the most essential affirmations of theology prove to be irresistibly apposite. When we think seriously about the complex rational structure of reality and the way in which it seems to be reflected in the structure of rational mind, we enter the realm of spirit, of intellect, of a formal and final logic in nature already analogous to mind or rational thought. Perhaps only for this reason can the veil of Isis be lifted and nature be revealed to mind, and perhaps it is also only for this reason that mind can inhabit nature.
Here the physical sciences themselves urge us toward a certain metaphysical supposition. It may be that, pursued to its logical terminus, the very enterprise of scientific reasoning suggests or even secretly presumes that the being of the world—the ontological horizon within which it takes shape and exists—is something like an act of thought. Here the questions of science and those of theology converge upon the same mysteries, not through some maladroit confusion of two incompatible kinds of causal narrative (the cosmological and the ontological, say), but quite naturally, because the very concept of causality still demands for itself the full richness of all its possible logical acceptations. No physical science can answer or explain away the mysteries that here come into view; neither can any theology; but both would do well to recognize the threshold upon which they stand.
All the labors of the scientific intellect are undertaken within the embrace of a structure of intelligibility that the sciences need not pretend to understand, penetrate, or encompass but that nevertheless sustains them in all their labors. That intelligibility is the transcendental horizon toward which they necessarily strive, even when they hew faithfully to the limits of their proper remit. It shows itself to be nothing other than that original experience of the radiant mystery of being that first awakens the desire for truth, but now translated into a fixed orientation of the rational will. The sciences venture all their energies upon the reality of this ultimate rational intelligibility—upon the wager that the world’s being and its structure of rational order are one and the same event.
Thus, they undertake their perpetual journey toward an end that perhaps, in principle, they cannot reach: to disclose a perfect reciprocal transparency between mind and world, and hence an ultimate reality where existence and perfect intelligibility are convertible with one another because both subsist in a single unrestricted act of spiritual intelligence. This, in theological terms, is one of the paths of the mind’s journey into God. And this is also, at least in its ultimate intentions, a place where the consonance of scientific and theological reasoning is restored, on the far side of a provisional separation that at times has become an alienation. Both pursuits set out originally upon their different paths from the same innocent instant of existential amazement, and both together end, after all their several peregrinations, at a place where description fails, but where that primordial wonder finds its final consummation in wisdom: the threshold of that mystery—the cause of causes, the explanation of explanations, the holy of holies—toward which both are forever turned. And, however different the paths by which they have reached this sanctuary, each approaches it at the end ideally not as a stranger in a far country but as a pilgrim entering a long-sought holy land.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a slightly modified excerpt from Theological Territories A David Bentley Hart Digest. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.