Monday, May 19, 2008
A review of M. Heller's _Creative Tension_
Avoiding "methodological anarchy" enables true encounter
*Creative Tension* (CT) is the first of Fr. Michael Heller's books that I have read. I doubt it will be his last. CT begins a bit slowly and vaguely for my tastes, but by the second section (on certain perspectives in the history of science), Heller presents interesting details on the actual medieval view of humanity's place in the cosmos, as opposed to the stereotyped view that Kepler overthrew medieval geocentrism. Far from it. In fact, the medieval view of Earth was, as Heller cites C.S. Lewis, "anthropoperipheral". What Kepler did accomplish was the mathematization of our galaxy, which ultimately led to the idealized displacement of man from the mathematical world. Interestingly, Heller notes how, while the medieval cosmology was anthropomorphic but anthropoperipheral, the modern cosmology is more anthropocentric in terms of man's formalized investigations being the very substance of cosmic order. (One is reminded of A. Guth's quip that we can form universes out of thin air.)
The section I found most challenging, and most interesting, was that concerning Fr. Heller's area of expertise, namely, working towards integrating general relativity and quantum gravitation by way of noncommutative geometry. While Heller is merciful for boneheads like me, and kept the exposition of this new field of mathematics at a very lay level, I did appreciate learning that noncommutative geometry renders points, and the time in which they are traversed, meaningless, which, in turn, renders the talk (à la Hawking, Hartle, et al.) of fundamental singularities meaningless. Once we cross the Planck threshold (i.e., above 1 x 10^-33 cm, 1 x10^93 g/cm^3, 1 x 10^-44 sec), we are able to work with points in Poincaré fields, but beneath that threshold, the proto-singularity is atemporal and aspacial, terms that certainly render the Augustinian and Thomistic views of creation as timeless more palatable for modern theology (as against the objections by process theologians that timelessness renders God inactive and static). Noncommutative geometry allow for dynamic progression, but not in classical or even quantum terms.
The care with which Heller delineates noncommutative geometry is driven by his explicit differentiation, in the spirit of St. Thomas, between creation qua ontological dependency and the cosmos's beginning qua empirically analyzable event. It is precisely this care in delineating the methodological boundaries between science and theology that avoids what Fr. Heller calls "methodological anarchy". In their proper bounds, science cannot ground or refute theology, while theology cannot simply refute, nor vampirize, science. A key point Fr. Heller makes is that, because science cannot go beyond itself, it is the privilege and task of theology to see science in a larger metaphysical, and indeed moral, perspective, "from the outside" as it were.
The moral privilege of theology in allowing science to find a home in the complete metaphysical cosmos ties in with a crucial point Fr. Heller makes, namely, that rationality is a moral choice, because it is a free choice. As the empirical method cannot account for, much less ground, itself, rationality amounts to a free, moral "faith in reason" (as Popper called in *The Open Society*). Hence, Heller calls the Greeks' logical ethos their moral code. (You can see how potent this insight is during a conversation, on [...], involving Fr. Heller and R. Dawkins: when Heller asked Dawkins whether he believed in rationality, Dawkins said of course, and when asked why, he replied, because it works, at which point Fr. Heller smiled. If rationality is "right" because it works, how do we know it works? Because it is self-evident? No. Because it works? In what terms? Etc.)
The basic message Heller has for theologians is twofold. First, take the science seriously, not only in terms of "going along with" the current "scientific world-image", in order to avoid complete communication failures, but also in terms of true competence in the field one wants to examine. Second, while science cannot "explain" or "prove" religion, it can teach by analogy. For example, if we can fathom atemporal, aspacial dynamics via noncommutative geometry, can we not also gain further insight into the aspacial, atemporal God? And if we can see the failure of ordinary language in increasingly rarified sciences, can we not also take more seriously the nuances of "God-talk"?
CT is a fine primer for Fr. Heller's work, but the interested reader really will want more, as apparently can be found in his other woks in the past couple decades. I was disappointed to see Fr. Heller did not cite Fr. Stanley Jaki's work, as Jaki argues for much the same methodological strictures on the "impassable divide" between theology proper and science. Related books of interest would be A. Nesteruk's *Light from the East* and pretty much anything by T.F. Torrance and Wolfgang Smith.