Vatican scientist claims that “reason was created by God”; gets muddled about accommodationism

December 27, 2013 • 10:55 am

Over at The Daily Beast, Christopher Dickey interviews Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The piece, called “Vatican science on Christmas and creationism,” is of interest mainly because it shows the muddle that the Church gets itself into by simultaneously embracing Catholicism and modern science.  I’m in a rush preparing for my trip, so I’ll comment on just a few bits.

I was surprised to learn that the academy has 80 current members, including some non-Catholics, and over the years has harbored at least four Nobel Laureates.

Dickey sets the stage by claiming that Catholicism was once at war with science, which of course is true, though accommodationist historians have claimed that such disputes were not religious but political. Dickey:

Atheists and fundamentalists, both, will be tempted to say the whole notion of a pontifical academy of science is a contradiction in terms. Back in the fiery heyday of the Inquisition, after all, pontiffs and scientists were in deadly opposition, just as Bible-waving Evangelicals and cold-blooded evolutionists are squared off today in the creationist wars that plague American education.

Well, the Inquisition started well before science was a going concern: the term “scientist” was invented only in 1834, though people were practicing what we’d consider science in the 17th century. But Dickey is generally right: Galileo and Bruno were certainly persecuted, at least in part, because of their scientific views were contrary to Church doctrine. This was of course “political” in the sense that the Church was also the state. But one can say without reservation that the church was implacably opposed to those who used reason and doubt to figure out truths about the universe: what I call “science in the broad sense.”

But I digress; look what Sánchez says about reason:

But over the centuries the views of the Catholic Church have evolved, in fact, and conservatives are going to be shocked once again by the way this papacy broadens its message of reconciliation to include an ever-wider spectrum of humanity, including skeptical scientific researchers and intellectuals.

“If we don’t accept science, we don’t accept reason,” says Sánchez, “and reason was created by God.”

Reason was created by God? Really? Sánchez, like the Church itself, accepts evolution, and it’s clear that many animals can reason.  We aren’t the only reasoning species.  Primates can reason, some birds can reason (perhaps many, but we haven’t tested them all), and cetaceans can reason.  If everything evolved naturally, then reason evolved too. The church claims to deviate from straight naturalistic evolution only by positing that a soul was inserted in the hominin lineage.  So what Sánchez is doing here is adding yet another intrusion of God into the evolutionary process, but one that is wrong since, while we can’t prove that animals don’t have souls (or even that we do!), we can show that we’re not the unique reasoning species. Finally, he’s saying this kind of stuff because he wants to argue that science arose from religion.

And of course it’s just fatuous to claim that reason must have been created by God.  Reason could naturally arise by natural selection once a brain was big enough to process complex information.  Such an argument is also contrary to Sánchez’s claim, later in the piece, that science and religion are non-overlapping areas.  The assertion that reason didn’t evolve is certainly a violation of this Gouldian view, expressed as follows:

“The notion of creation is completely different from the notion of evolution,” said Sánchez. “Creation is a philosophical notion that comes from The Bible. It says that God, from nothing, created being.” That is the central concept, he said, and science has no real explanation for how that might happen. But evolution is different. There is a great deal of evidence, he said, that there is evolution in nature and that species evolve.

The great confusion comes, according to Sánchez, when people try to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God. “This is like saying you can prove the existence of the soul,” said Sánchez, and about that he has no doubt.

Over the years the progress of science has caused many in the Catholic Church to rethink what they thought they knew, like the location of Heaven and of Hell. “In the past, we said they are [physical] places,” Sánchez explained, as if they could be pinpointed on a map of the cosmos. But that was back in the Middle Ages when people believed the universe was organized in spheres with Earth at their center, then the sun and the moon and the stars, and beyond them, Heaven. Hell was under the ground in the center of this planet. Now Paradise and the Inferno are understood philosophically as states of being, not places on a chart.

“All these questions of physics and metaphysics have changed because physics have changed,” says Sánchez.

This is so completely muddled that I can’t figure out what the good bishop is trying to say.  If he’s saying that God created being from nothing, that is not a philosophical claim but an empirical one: it argues that God produced the first life, and this invalidates the whole field of abiogenesis. And if he’s trying to claim that it’s wrong to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God, then why does the Church demand validated evidence of two miracles before someone is made a saint? Clearly the Church relies on empirical evidence all the time as evidence for God. And it is still part of Church doctrine that Adam and Eve were the literal ancestors of humans. Science disproved that one about a hundred years ago, so why don’t they remove that from their doctrine?

I am always amused by Hell, which of course is referred to as a literal place in the Bible. Here are a few references:

Matthew 13:42: And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Matt 25:41: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

Mark 9:43: And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.

Luke 16:24: And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

So how does Sánchez know that these are all metaphors? It’s not science that casts doubt on hell, but secular morality: people realized that the idea of eternal torment for, say, one unconfessed episode of masturbation, was not seemly for a loving God.  I suppose Sanchez follows this flowchart:

Metaphor bible verse

Sánchez also agrees with some other stuff that’s scientifically insupportable:

There is still plenty of room for miracles in Sánchez’s universe.

He tends to agree with scientists who think the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three kings of Asia to the infant Jesus was really Halley’s Comet. Other theories hold that it was a supernova or an alignment of two or three planets. “Of course, it might have been a complete miracle,” said Sánchez. “God can suspend natural laws.” But the bishop prefers to associate those sorts of miracles mainly with the story of Jesus. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is particularly important. “To return the soul to the body, this is a very special miracle,” said Sánchez.

“The bishop prefers”. . .   I am stupefied.

Finally, according to the bishop, science has told us that all fetuses are human:

At the same time, advances in biology have expanded the definition of life. In the past, says Sánchez, the church considered that an embryo did not have human life until it began to take on something resembling human form, about 40 days into a pregnancy. “Now we say if the first cells [after fertilization and conception] have DNA, the genetic coding for human beings, then they have life.”

No, biology has not expanded the definition of life; it’s religious revelation and dogma that has made the Church decree not only that a fertilized egg is a person, but that every sperm is sacred. Let us not forget that an egg cell and a sperm have DNA as well. Those are living cells, but they’re not people. Sánchez’s problem is that he equates “life” with “person.” A liver cell cannot survive on its own except in the body (or a Petri dish), and a fetus cannot survive on its own until well into pregnancy. So if other cells are parasitic on the organism, and have DNA, and that DNA could potentially produce an entire person, why aren’t all of our cells “persons”? Is it not murder to pluck out a hair?

This is the kind of trouble you get into when trying to embrace medieval, supernatural dogma and modern science at the same time. Sánchez’s lucubrations about science sound superficially sane, but fall apart when you think about them for just a minute.

h/t: Joyce

59 thoughts on “Vatican scientist claims that “reason was created by God”; gets muddled about accommodationism

  1. “If we don’t accept science, we don’t accept reason,” says Sánchez, “and reason was created by God.”

    He knows because God told him in an email. Here is a photocopy:

    Hey Sanchez,
    Reason was created by me.
    – God

    1. Reason is an outcome of species becoming ever more mentally adept at appropriating and mastering their environment. Primitive brain processes began with low level sensory cell to motor neuron cell connections. Things progressed from there as desires and greater self-determination of the species became involved. Humans have further raised reason by codifying the general laws of motion of matter in the rules of logic. Syllogism is the observation that the categories of what is general and the category of what is particular have a definite relation to one another.

  2. “Creation is a philosophical notion that comes from The Bible. It says that God, from nothing, created being.” That is the central concept, he said, and science has no real explanation for how that might happen.

    The good ol’ infinite regress “philosophy”.

    How did god get created and how could it really be nothing if he was there?

    It always puzzles me when these fairly intelligent and capable people in an instant can switch from what appears to be evidence based reasoning to non-explanatory fictional storytelling.

    It’s bloody frustrating to watch when all they have to do is to use that same critical sense on one more god. That’s all that seperates us; One stinking evil psychopathic little mofo of a god.

  3. It is always fun to see the reasonably reasonable religious try to fit their theology and supernatural magic with science. As science can be shown to be true it is rather silly to adjust science into theological or magical thinking, when they do that we can show they are wrong. Religion and all its magical and supernatural baggage always has to evolve with science, or be left behind with the ignorant followers who chose to stay behind out of the reach of education. More and more is becoming metaphor, they can save themselves a lot of bother if they can get their heads around God being a metaphor too.

  4. Silly bishop. Life doesn’t begin at conception or after so many weeks of development or whatever.

    Life began a few billion years ago, and will almost assuredly outlive the last human.

    b&

    1. I saw that, too. It’s really pathetic. Atheists and scientists are always referred to as robot-like, heartless, and unfeeling in these types of articles. Sometimes even by other (faitheist) athesists.

    2. Its epic-pathetic.

      Cold-blooded evolutionists? It is difficult to describe the naeve and insecure beliefs that these people dilute their capacity to reason.

      1. Exactly.

        “Sophisticated” theologians generally have a worse-than-childish grasp on set theory. They actually tend to make Plato look sophisticated in such matters — and that takes some doing!

        If the argument is that everything that exists needs something else to create it, then clearly the creator must be external to the entity needing creation. So, if existence itself needs a creator, said creator must not be a part of existence. We even have a word for such entities: nonexistent. Which, not surprisingly, perfectly applies to the gods.

        Cheers,

        b&

        1. When it comes to defending their religion and their god and their beliefs and their accomodations, sophisticated theologians are confined in a tomb of constrained thought processes. They are unable to attach what is possible to threads of arguments that may condemn or shatter their transcendent hopes.

          1. Exactly. Rather than start with observations and see where that leads them, they start with conclusions and ignore and / or distort observations that don’t support the conclusions.

            …and lots of them even admit as much….

            b&

          2. When it comes to defending their religion and their god and their beliefs and their accomodations, sophisticated theologians …

            … find it easier to defend the idea that they shouldn’t have to defend their religion and their god and their beliefs and their accomodations. The claim that religious beliefs don’t need any defense is a very sophisticated-sounding defense in itself.

            Depending on how you do it, you can imply that spiritual truths are too basic, or too subjective, or too personal, or too necessary, or too mystical, or too obvious, or too hidden, or too useful, or too beautiful, or too traditional, or too therapeutic, or too philosophical, or too transcendent — or ALL of the above – to be questioned by outsiders. That’s why skeptics ought to keep their skepticism to themselves.

            It’s the “Argument from Shut Up, That’s Why.”

  5. The greater the cognitive dissonance is, the greater the intellectual contortion is required for daily functioning. To see the intellect confused and struggling within the brittle bonds of religious belief is sickening. Cognitive energy is squandered by constant emergencies necessitating a flimsy patch here and then there…what a horrid, vicious circle.

  6. Catholics have told me this Hell is a state of mind thing before. Usually after I ask them how they feel about me, their good atheist friend, burning for all eternity.

    One thing is for sure, the churches are getting more empty. Midnight mass is broadcast here & there were few in the pews and not a young person amongst them.

    The Catholic Church delves out platitudes and claims to accept atheists into heaven because they know they are losing the war.

  7. “Sánchez’s lucubrations about science sound superficially sane, but fall apart when you think about them for just a minute.”

    That’s true of just about any religious claim.

  8. for a being that supposeddly “created” reason, it is passing strange that the supposed “holy bible says that reason is not to be followed. it repeatedly says that one should not think for one’s self at all.

    And thus we have yet one more TrueChristian who is sure that he can ignore what bits of his bible he wants.

  9. “reason was created by God”

    I wonder what thought process God used that made it seem reasonable (oops) to create reason?

  10. No, biology has not expanded the definition of life; it’s religious revelation and dogma that has made the Church decree not only that a fertilized egg is a person, but that every sperm is sacred.

    This, of course, means that god is the world’s greatest abortionist because more then half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are expelled.

  11. I’m under the impression that, according to the RCC, the ability to reason is not given to us by god IN ADDITION to the soul, but is a property of the soul, as is our moral sense.

    This is what is meant to be made in god’s image. God gives us immortality, reason, and a moral sense all as part of the soul package.

    Not that I believe any of it.

  12. If something hasn’t been debunked completely, but has been debunked somewhat, then how can one still maintain the literal word of God? Is it only that some parts are the literal word of God, or that it requires showing it’s all debunked to make sense of the other debunked parts?

    Strange assertion, but that’s what faith does I guess.

    1. The very concept of the literal word of God makes no sense: written over 800 years the anthology that is the Bible consists of laments, wedding-songs, hymns of victory, echoes of law-suits or antiphonal songs, erotic poetry , the 10 commandments twice (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), 3 sets of laws (Exodus 20-23, Leviticus 11-27, Deuteronomy 12-26), historical fiction in Esther, a questioning of prophets’ attitudes in Jonah, a narrative retelling of Kings in Chronicles, theological narrative, epistles, inept historical narrative (Acts) and apocalyptical jeremiad. And that’s by no means an exhaustive list.

      The usual theological trick is to make a synonym of the word ‘literal’ for ‘inerrant’: as if all texts in the Bible could be analysed for their literal truth. Well some of them are presented as, and are, works of literature, of art – Job, Ecclesiastes, Esther. It is incoherent to analyse them as inerrant. And then to discuss them as the literal word of God is like analysing Jane Austen as God’s messenger.

      Slaínte.

  13. “The church claims to deviate from straight naturalistic evolution only by positing that a soul was inserted in the hominin lineage.”

    Sort of like an endogenous retrovirus?

    Another implication is that Adam and Eve will wonder why everybody else in heaven gets to meet their mum and dad again … being the first with a soul has its down side I guess.

    I posted this next obvervation elsewhere, but here goes again.

    How much does a soul weigh? In the past, attempts were made to determine its weight by weighing the moribund, weighing them again just after their demise, subtracting the smaller from the larger and voila, there it is!

    But they are doing it wrong. A better method in this age of precision measurement is to weigh a sperm, weigh an ovum, bring them together and then measure the increase in Mass when the soul arrives. This method should be more reliable because the mass of a sperm and an egg cell is small compared to the mass of a human body.

    Cheers.

    1. A better method in this age of precision measurement is to weigh a sperm, weigh an ovum, bring them together and then measure the increase in Mass when the soul arrives.

      Oh, but the Church could never condone such research, because abortion.

      …that, and they already know what the experiment would demonstrate. But publicly? Abortion.

      Cheers,

      b&

    2. Sort of like an endogenous retrovirus?

      Well, no, since that would imply that souls are quasi-natural objects that can be instantiated by mere biology. The doctrine I recall being taught as a child (admittedly half a century ago) is that each individual soul is a separate miracle, hand-crafted by God for a particular person.

      So it’s not that “a soul was inserted in the hominin lineage” as Jerry likes to put it. Rather, at some point in our prehistory God decided to start inserting souls manually into human embryos, and has been doing so ever since at breakneck speed, all over the world (rather like Santa delivering gifts). And presumably he could stop doing so if he got bored with it, but they never mention that part.

    3. Don’t be silly. Everyone knows the should weighs the same as exactly one Higg’s boson. That’s why Jesus named it the god particle. Or something like that.

  14. Well, yes, Sánchez is confused. And, yes, he’s muddled. And, yes, as has been shown both in the post and in the comments, it’s not difficult to refute (usually via reductio ad absurdum) any of his points that aren’t simply bafflegab.

    And yet, nevertheless, what he says is *still* better than Luther’s “reason is the devil’s whore.”

      1. “Low bar”? Thou dissest Martin Luther; thou shalt not knock down a champion of zymurgy; for the stein is not to the swift, nor the masskrug to the strong; neither yet keferloher to the wise, nor yet bock to men of understanding, nor yet humpen to men of skill; but pilsener and weizen happeneth to them all.

        Yesterday I drank something which did not agree with me, so that I had to sing: If I don’t drink well I have to suffer, and [yet] I do like to do it. I said to myself what good wine and beer I have at home, and also [what] a pretty lady or (should I say) lord. You would do well to ship the whole cellar full of my wine and a bottle of your beer to me here, as soon as you are able; otherwise I will not be able to return home because of the new beer.

        [Martin Luther, letter to his wife Katharina, July 29, 1534]

  15. The great confusion comes, according to Sánchez, when people try to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God. “This is like saying you can prove the existence of the soul,” said Sánchez, and about that he has no doubt.

    As has often been noted, should any good, convincing, solid evidence for the existence of the soul appear Sanchez and his fellow NOMAtics would spin on a dime. Ditto for evidence for God.

    All this unctuous reassurance that science should never come into the realm of religion (or vice versa, my dear, do not be alarmed) would disappear in a great big puff of smug and gloat. “See? We told you we knew. We told you to believe us. You didn’t before, but now you have to, don’t you?”

    And scientists and atheists would hang their heads (or perhaps jump up and down eagerly) and admit yeah, we were wrong. And neither Sanchez nor any NOMAtic would tell them to keep their former beliefs instead because it is too “confused” to use science to prove or disprove the God hypothesis, no matter how strong this new evidence is.

    About that I have no doubt.

  16. Claim in need of reference:

    “God can suspend natural laws.”

    You know what? I don’t think magic can suspend natural law. And I think someone claiming to sitting on a purported Pointy end of the sciences should know that.

    Change of natural laws is pretty much excluded on the global level, if I understand correctly. Laws derives from symmetries (or their breaking), so Noether’s theorems tells us.

    Moreover, such symmetries are divided (I think, having heard this described once – it’s over my pay grade) in a global, non-quantized set acting on the external degrees of freedom of a particle (leading to conservation of momentum, say) and a “local”, quantized set of particle fields acting on the internal degrees of freedom of a particle (leading to conservation of spin, say).

    But in both cases a global property has to change, either the spacetime volume or the particle fields that permeate it, change the whole observable universe and its weave of reality forever as a consequence. In sum, it would break all sorts of conservation laws. Observably so.

    Change of natural laws on the local level may have some loophole, but it seems difficult. What it amounts to is to tamper with the “action” that through symmetries constrains what a particle can do locally, as per Noether. (Say, traveling in a straight line in flat space due to conservation of momentum).

    I have a paper where they looked at what would happen if the universal speed limit would locally be tampered with, which would locally affect the “action”. Not surprisingly, the light cone of gauge theories (aka quantum field, “particle”, theories that has to obey relativity and its scaling: gauges) theories was destabilized and local physics ended up going, as the technical term says, kaboom.*

    How does that translate to generic magical action, one may ask? (Not the same action as the “action”, mind, hence the scarecrows.) Any magical action would by definition act outside of thermodynamics and would hence unbalance the local energy conservation of closed systems. One way to re-balance it would be to change the universal speed limit (the constant c) locally, compensating the extra heat with lowered vacuum (matter) energy.

    So without having the necessary physics chops to say exactly what would happen if a purported magic action would actually happen, I can say that it likely translates to unraveling the local physics in a very visible, destructive way.

    It wouldn’t be sure to stay local either, if it affects the vacuum it can set off our quasistable vacuum to convert into a new regime, making a new bubble universe as it were. (Again, if that is an actual risk is way above my pay grade.) And no purported magical agents can do anything about that.

    * In Pointy terms, “all hell broke loose”. =D

    1. Ouch, sorry for my language mistakes and unnecessary repetitions (“what would happen if … would actually happen”)!

      I’m still on my first coffee – it takes a while to adjust the blood level in my caffeine system.

  17. In the past in fact the church had been a soul´s investigator and it finally decided that children had a soul, and later on,that indians had a soul (you can read online the dramatic passage of Claude Levy-Strauss here, please read page 12).

    https://archive.org/stream/racehistory00levi#page/12/mode/2up

    https://archive.org/stream/racehistory00levi#page/n3/mode/2up

    More recently, I heard someone reporting that the priest told her that animals had a “soul”, what amazing, what if the church authority considered it otherwise?

    Only after the church had decided that children had a soul could artists represent Jesus on the lap of his mother not as an adult miniature but as a child (?)
    What happens when comments don´t appear, were they rejected?

    1. That’s fascinating, thanks for the info.

      Comments from new posters that contain hyperlinks are held for review before they appear.

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