Math, Reason and Civilization

platonicElements“If math should suddenly disappear, it would set physics back – a week.”
Nobel Prize Winner – Richard Feynman

Mathematician’s response: But that week would be the one in which God created the universe.

Galileo is said to have remarked that the universe is a wonderful thing, written in the language of mathematics.

There is a remarkable correlation between things as we see them and math. Particle physicists have managed, on occasion, to predict the existence of new particles purely on the basis of math – and later have their predictions upheld through experimentation.

The ancient Greeks marveled at the relationship between math and reality and even suggested a relationship between certain geometrical shapes and fundamental reality. Plato posited that the “four elements” each had a primary geometrical shape. Fire was a  sharp-pointed tetrahedra; Air was a smooth-sliding octahedra; Water was a droplet-shaped icosahedra; Earth was an easily compactable cube. To this, Aristotle added a fifth element, the Quintessence [“fifth element”], which was the ether, the stuff that filled all of space, thought to be the breath of the gods. Indeed, it was posited that that universe itself had the shape of that element, a dodecahedra.

Modern physics has more detail and more math, but the same intuition about how things are. This system of elements believed by Greek philosophers, is repeated in the writings of the early Fathers. It was the common, educated understanding of the world at their time. And, as I have noted, though geometric shapes have given way to quarks and charms and gluons, the fundamental intuition has not changed.

It is appropriate to look towards math when considering creation. And this correlation between math and creation also gives rise to the use of reason. If mathematical rules accurately measure and predict the movements of the heavens, then the same principles apply to all things. Logic is simply the application of mathematical principles to ideas and words. This intuition has not changed over the course of the centuries. Just as our math is more sophisticated than the math of Euclid, so our logic is more sophisticated than that of Plato and Aristotle. But it is still the same math and the same logic.

What has changed over the centuries, however, is the relationship of all of this to culture itself. Modernity (a movement and set of concepts born in the late 18th century Enlightenment) extended reason in every direction. It was assumed that the power of math, demonstrated through repeated and successful experiments, could be directed towards everything with beneficial results. And so were born new “branches” of knowledge, such as Political Science (the application of rational logic to the problems of the State), Sociology (the application of rational logic to social behavior), etc. Every branch of science in the modern world shares the common assumptions of the Enlightenment. Reason and experiment will tell us everything.

There is, however, a limit to this wonderful correlation – and it is this limit which is often forgotten within Modernity. The Fathers recognized that God Himself is not subject to these rational, mathematical principles. This is not to say that God is irrational, but that He transcends the categories and principles of creation. In a similar manner, the soul itself cannot be subjected to these principles.

The soul is not “stuff.” Rather, it is regarded as the “life” of the body. Instead of being a data point of metaphysics, the affirmation that we have a soul is an affirmation that when all the math and rationality of our existence is finished, there remains something to be said. Regardless of our materiality, we are more than numbers and reason. The “life” of a man is, like God, not subject to measurement or definition.

A strength of the modern project has been its use of reason and math. With careful application we have seen amazing advances in science and technology. But the same strength has also been its greatest weakness. For we have tried to reduce everything to science and reason (with increasingly bogus versions of both). The more purely “reasonable” and “scientific” revolutions were all abject failures and the cause of untold misery (cf. France and Russia). Though democracy found its way across many other nations, most sought to balance pure reason with the wisdom of inherited tradition. It remains the case that solutions based on pure reason fail at the human level.

All of this is true because the soul (and thus human behavior itself) remains not subject to reason or math. It stands as a boundary to our arrogance and a point where trespass happens at our peril. That quality is present elsewhere as well. For though many aspects of human existence can be measured and quantified, they cannot be reduced to their quantification. There is always a remainder that cannot be accounted for, other than by a recognition that we are in the presence of life itself. Of course, much of modernity will often choose to ignore the remainders of our existence, seeking to force life into quantifiable boundaries. Such efforts must be cataloged as examples of arrogance and the danger of modern hubris.

A life rightly lived must be lived beyond measure. Beyond the math and reasons that predict the progress of economies and weigh benefits and boons, the soul yearns for what cannot be seen, measured or reasoned. And that yearning has drawn grace down from heaven through the ages and transfigured the merely mathematical.

The intuition of the early philosophers went beyond what they could measure and see. Earth, air, fire, water – theses are obvious elements to be measured and considered. But they understood that the fifth element was something apart. It was always the point where philosophy stumbled. For though it rightly recognized “something more,” it could not itself be successfully known. But at least they recognized that not everything can be known. In that sense, our modern world has forgotten the quintessence of created existence.

Of course, our struggles today are not with the rationalists of the late 18th or 19th centuries. For today, reason itself has become suspect. There has been a shift in popular consciousness in which the will has triumphed over reason (something that was inevitable). Today, what is true is what we want to be true. It is the final victory for consumers. Not only are we able to choose anything we want, but we are also able to will what is.

Justice Anthony Kennedy articulated this with great succinctness in 1992 in the opinion he wrote for Planned Parenthood vs. Casey:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

That “liberty” now justifies fundamental realities such as the relations between male and female to be subject to change, because some want it. Reality has become plastic and subject to redefinition. This is an anti-science and an anti-math, just as it is anti-reason.

The mathematical reasonableness of creation is an important feature of creation, recognized both by the fathers as well as modern science. In that sense, true science is in no way the enemy of the Christian faith. It has its limits, and must stand respectfully silent before the quintessence of existence. Reason and Math have classically been limited by reality itself. The will, however, seems to know no limit. With its triumphant rise, civilization has passed over into barbarism.


  1. Indeed Father, we are descending into barbarism where in the individual determines truth, which allows us to call the death of the unborn, healthcare, as well as the redefining of gender etc. In many ways though I also see us descending into madness as a culture as these two things are only the tip of a very large iceberg.

  2. Nicholas,
    It is interesting that you introduced “madness” into your observation. A few months ago I was wandering through YouTube and came across a two-part presentation from BBC4 entitled “Dangerous Knowledge”, a fascinating video about the contributions made by four brilliant individuals: Georg Cantor, Kurt Goedel, Ludwig Boltzman, and Alan Turing. Boltzman was a physicist who never succeeded in persuading anyone in his field to take his theories about physics seriously and, without leaving a note, commited suicide in despair. Cantor, still considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, became so obsessed with his work, ended his days in an insane asylum. Kurt Goedel became so neurotic that he essentially starved himself to death. Alan Turing, his body and mind racked by the hormone injections forced up him to “cure” him of his homosexuality eventually comitted suicide.

    The most interesting individual for me was Goedel, or rather his discovery. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination (even mine!) a mathemetician or logician so I’m not prepared to argue about his discovery or, rather, the implications of his discovery but the gist of it is this: Though there will always be statements which are true, mathematics and logic will never be able to prove them to be true. Now, everyone agrees that the proof is unambiguous and without fault. A famous mathematician named Gregory Chaitin is interviewed throughout the video and, apparently an expert on Goedel and his “continuum hypothesis” is confident that the hypothesis proves that those expecting mathematics and logic to answer all the questions are wasting their shot. He further asserts that logicians who, while claiming Goedel as the greatest of all logicians, are in denial of the implications about the limitations of logic and mathematics to answer all of our questions–that those who have placed all their eggs in the basket of the Enlightenment are in for a disappointment and need to face up to the implications of the hypothesis. Captivated by Goedel’s hypothesis, Alan Turing applied it to computers and came to the same conclusion. One can give a problem to a computer which can run on and on and one will never know if it is simply a very difficult problem or whether it is unsolvable. In addition, these paradoxes will grow in number.

    Orthodox may find some other interesting titbits. Cantor, who was a religious man, had heard a voice continually calling him on into mathematics (it turns out that he had originally wanted to be a musician). His discoveries about the nature of infinity (there are, it seems, a lot of infinities!) were fueled by an obsessive belief that his quest to understand infinity was a religious quest, a quest to understand God and that the voice he heard was God’s. Once his obsession lead him deeper and deeper into the thicket and he suffered multiple nervous breakdowns, the “voice” had abandoned him. He died alone in an insane asylum. Years later Goedel picked up Cantors unsolved problem and suffered a schizophrenic break attempting to solve it.

    The psychologist who comments throughout the video points out the dangers of obsessive thought but also observes that once God has been removed from consideration, and our quest is for certainty, what do we expect to happen when those schools of thought like math and logic, in which we had placed so much hope and certainty, crumble. Madness?

    The videos have a haunting and melancholic production quality to them and I found them captivating though I will likely never grasp the idea of multiple infinities. It was a tiring challenge to my imagination before I finally grasped black holes and the curvature of space. I still don’t understand why there is no center to the universe.

  3. I had a single physics class in college, but enjoyed it. My professor, who was also a scientist here in Oak Ridge (he commuted down to SC to teach), considered himself a “heretical physicist.” He was brilliant. I recall in class he was lecturing on some of the math associated with particle physics and said, “The further you go in physics, the more theological the questions become.”

    I thought, “Plato had already told us that…” Or as Professor Diggory in Lewis’ books would say, “My, yes! It’s all there in Plato. What do they teach in schools these days.”

    I would add that most people do not realize that most of what Plato wrote, and certainly the Platonists after him, was theological in its nature. They went very far without the data of Divine revelation. And they certainly gave us the vocabulary that Christian theology would eventually speak.

  4. “Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he guessed that the man’s heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”
    G. K. Chesterton

  5. Physics major (1984) here.
    “The further you go in physics, the more theological the questions become.”
    True, but physics also (wisely) avoids the theological questions when they pop up, which is why it is essentially an empty discipline.
    Sometimes, reading your blog. I think my youth would have been better spent studying classical Greek instead of physics and math.

  6. The triumph of the will is the essence of nihilism as Nietzsche described. The 20th century could easily be described as the gradual ascension of that will in revolt against God and the gradual destruction of community.

  7. As it turns out, some cosmologists have been considering the notion that space may indeed be shaped based on the dodecahedron:

    Perhaps modern science will ascend the proverbial mountain and find the ancient philosophers sitting there, waiting.

  8. Michael,
    You have reached the very conclusion that perfectly describes the problem with Post Modernity and Nihilism. It is a revolt against God. It starts by the acceptance of the idea that we are the genetic descendants of pond scum and that physical life is all there is. This frame of mind robs us of all meaning except that which we create. In the end of life there is nothing, so our meaning is meaningless. I believe Solomon said it best, when he said, Vanity, vanity, all is vanity except the Hebrew word we translate “vanity” is Hevel which means “empty wind.” This is a perfect description of the madness of nihilism and the end result of rebellion.

  9. Nicholas, Michael
    I do not share the critique that lumps nihilism with evolutionary (sic) science. It is not a necessary link. The absence of God in certain theories regarding the nature of life is (or should be) seen as a false conclusion having nothing to do with science. Nicholas notes that they see man beginning as “pond scum.” The Scriptures say we begin as dirt or clay (St. Gregory of Nyssa preferred to say “mud”). Nyssa sees in our “mudness” the wonder of it all. “Man is mud that has been commanded to become God.” So the movement from one to the other can be properly a source of wonder and devotion. On the other hand, the opposite conclusion, or a Nietschean conclusion can be drawn and everything is tainted with emptiness and meaninglessness.

    But the fault is not in the science, I think, and the science becomes a red herring for Christians. This is an error, of a sort, that is sometimes associated with Blessed Seraphim Rose. The truth is that everything touched by the Nietschean will to power becomes distorted, misdirected, wrongly understood, etc. But not because it is inherently so.

    The brokenness is within the human heart. Of interest to me at the moment is the contrast between the Nietschean Ubermensch (Nazi style) and today’s manifestation of the “will to power.” In Hitler’s hands, the will to power was grand opera, a Wagnerian march towards domination. The present will to power, should be called something like a “will to be entertained.” It has become silly and frivolous, more slapstick than grand opera. Our culture has become trite.

    The simple evolution of TV shows is a case in point. In the 60’s there was an attempt to entertain with story, sometimes comedy, dance, etc. The politics and economics have now installed so-called “reality shows” that are the bilge of our time. Nothing could be more vapid and empty, and yet, they take the ratings. Vapid show, vapid audience.

    Our Supreme Court has become like the manager of a game show, declaring all obstacles to insanity null and void. Consumerism is, ultimately, the most perverse engine culture has ever seen. We are shopping our way into hell. What we can say is that Nietschean drama has now become Middle School melodrama, revealing the truth of its emptiness. It is, indeed, the hand of God and His judgment, to let something actually reveal itself. Whenever God removes restraints and allows sin to run amok, you can know that His judgment is at work. We are not engaged in an argument with Modernity. We should be engaged in a prophetic call to people to “come out of her and do not partake of her iniquities.” We are the builders of an ark, sounding the talanton so that the animals can be saved (interestingly the animals on Noah’s ark were specifically male and female).

    God give us grace to speak His word well. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.”

  10. Father
    I agree with your point. Science is not to blame. It is the human heart that assuming that the clay we are partly made of is the sum total of our being. The link between nihilism and evolutionary thinking is not a necessary one as you rightly say but I believe a link that is created by Nietschean thought. If we eliminate that, then science can be our partner instead of what it is becoming in the Post Modern world. I am beginning to suspect what we are really seeing played out is the full flower of Ancestral Sin in humanity’s rejection of God and attempt to rule in His stead.

  11. Actually Father I was not thinking of evolution at all. But, since you mention it: my critique of evolution science is simply that it is mechanistic, materialist and linear, Newtonian if you will rather than addressing the quantum reality that life is in everything and far more dynamic and unperdictable than the typical evolutionary mantra gives it credit for. Evolution makes it all logic and reason and history founded on a wrong premise.

    Blessed Seraphim was ultimately decrying the materialism and the rebellion against God he saw in it. When I read his work I was forced to consider how thoroughly materialistic my own approach to life is.

    Nietzche erred in believing that man, freed from God, would be great like the Titans. Beyond Good and Evil. Does not appear to be the case.

    Still the vapidity you see could be but the true opiate of the masses, the herd mentality to prepare the way for the Anti-Christ, assuming the Anti-Christ is one individual. It could be considered the destruction of all the Thou Shallts of a God-chained man. In fact it is the descent of man into nothingness.

    “Evolution” as popularized remains a bastion of philosophical naturalism loudly proclaiming that man is nothing at best a transitional species. A great lead into the artificial intelligence fanatics who see robots as the next dominate life form. The march toward AI makes for an interesting contradiction: man is nothing yet we are at the same time creators of life.

    Unfortunately ignorant professors in “higher ed” use ideological evolution as a hammer against ill prepared Christian young people to attack their faith. The ideological Christian has little real defense against it since they share much the same premise much the same eschatology.

    It is the ideological battle that is the red herring. Real Christianity is not even in the same arena. Christian Truth is wholly different. The Cross is the sign of victory.

    That is what both the high drama of Nietzche and the banality of current nihilism have in common: they deny the Cross. Indulge yourself rather than deny yourself.

    What ever the expression it is the same will, the demonic will.

  12. Gregory,

    Zeno’s paradoxes (“Achilles and the tortoise” and the dichotomy paradox).

    My personal favorite proposed solution (from the Wikipedia article):

    “Hans Reichenbach has proposed that the paradox may arise from considering space and time as separate entities. In a theory like general relativity, which presumes a single space-time continuum, the paradox may be blocked.”

    Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says – BBC

  13. I appreciate your work, Fr. Freeman.

    Would you please compile (or share) a reading list of books you recommend concerning (an Orthodox critique of) the “Modern Project” – my guess is CS Lewis’ ‘Abolition of Man’ is a good place for me to begin – any other suggestions?

    I’ve read all of your posts and your book – now I need to read more but after making some false starts with books that were a disappointment – I think that I need some direction.

    Thank you for your gift of time both in crafting these blog posts and (hopefully) responding to my request.

  14. Sharon,
    I’m sure others could add to the list. The Abolition of Man is excellent. After Virtue (by Catholic Philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre is pretty essential as well). Start with these.

  15. Michael,
    I think I agree pretty much with all of that. The ultimate goal of our adversary is simply to kill us (by any means necessary). He’s made great progress on killing us off at the edges (unborn, aged, sick, etc.). The assisted suicide of the merely bored will come at some point as will a continuing notion that human beings are actually a pollution and a blight on the world. Self-loathing does the enemy’s work for him. “Death to the World – the Last True Rebellion” is a good motto for us.

  16. George, A.onyma, thank you!

    I really do try to spend what’s left of my time here repenting but there are some distractions which are simply irresistible. I was unaware of Zeno’s Paradox and all that surrounds it and look forward to reading more on it.

    What I found interesting about Goedel’s Continuum Hypothesis as presented in the video is this:
    1. All agree that the hypothesis proves that indeed there are certain statements one can make that are true but which no on will be able to *prove* are true.
    2. Chaitin claims that the implications are inescapable namely, that logic and mathematics will never be able to answer all questions. Others say that the proof has limited applications and should not be read too broadly. Chaitin says the implications as he sees them are obvious and that those who disagree are in denial.
    3. If those who, in their quest for certainty, have put all their trust and faith in science and reason and, as the psychologist pointed out, have denied God in the process, what would this proof do to them? If Chaitin is right that they’re in denial, what will become of them when their capacity for denial crashes? Even worse, what awaits those who, either in defiance or desperation, cling to their delusion to the very end of their lives?

  17. Re: Greek Philosophy. How does the Orthodox Church view Aristotle? If I remember After Virtue correctly, Aristotle was big in MacIntyre’s thought.

    Re: critique of reality television. One more reason to love this blog. Though I do like to watch American Pickers.

  18. Michael,
    You got me thinking about the whole evolution thing again (how it gets used in modernity) and how in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, at which time ‘scientism’ had reached a zenith of sorts, certain scientists (Lamarck, Darwin, De Vries, Monod) developed theories to explain the “origins of species”, which theories and views were then used by certain persons with a religious ‘passion’ to prove that the whole of this world came into existence without a Creator-God, through a blind (random) and extremely slow (gradual) evolutionary process, in which organic matter emerged from inorganic matter and then from that came the simpler living organisms which later became more complex: Man was the end result of that (“unguided” [sic] process) and the notion of a Creator was more or less consigned to the sphere of religious bigotry.
    A number of serious scientists, however, although they accept and confirm changes of organisms within their species, challenge scientifically the assumption that such developments resulted in actual evolution from one species to another species. Adaptation, natural selection and mutations result in changes to organisms, but always within the same species. Evolution from one species to another is far from sufficiently certified by Palaeontology nor is it necessarily proven by Genetics in an undisputable manner.
    The toughest latest arguments used by evolutionists are already based on an evolutionary assumption for a pro-evolutionary explanation of (mainly genetic) findings/data. Outside of this ‘presumed context’ the fact that so many species, for example, share the overwhelming majority of DNA, even including ‘junk DNA’, does not further their arguments as they assume that it does.
    Newest evolutionary theories, based on molecular biology and evolutionary developmental biology, have therefore not provided convincing scientific arguments to an exclusion of other ways to interpreting their data. Those who are able to judge these positions, admit that after a century of debate the “evolution” cannot be proven. If anything, impartial study of the rich literature on the matter leads to the conclusion that the evolution from one set of species to others is an unproved and un-provable hypothesis, not a confirmed scientific fact, acknowledged by leading evolutionary scientists (C. Patterson, PP Grassè, R. Danson, R. Lewontin, S. Stanley). So what is usually presented in school-books or in more general literature as called ‘evolution’ should not be regarded as a scientifically indisputable fact – comparable to the fact that the earth revolves around the sun- but as a working hypothesis.

  19. Obviously, saying all that above is a scientific argumentation against evolution ; theology need not feel threatened or reject in toto the idea -embraced nowadays by the majority of the scientific community- of evolution; but its atheist interpretation is another kettle of fish of course.

  20. Trying to ‘understand’ God fully, no matter what branch of science calls our attention, is a bit like defying Him to reveal himself to us.
    It would be self defeating , for at best we can observe his perfection, admire it, comprehend some principles but never truly grasp Him fully.
    More likely it is God who discloses himself to us in the measure of our understanding and ability and not our ‘will’ to decipher the mysteries of the universe.

  21. Dino, I think there is a real ontological problem that I have never seen addressed. While it might be possible for bodies to change as evolution posits, what of the being or the logoi of a particular animal, let alone of we humans.

    One of my great personal saddnesses is that my son loves biology yet was denied the chance to study it unless he kow-towed to a twisted ideology that included the biological “fact” that homosexuality was normal.

  22. Sharon,

    Fr. Andrew Louth’s “Discerning the Mystery” is a real gem. He lays an ax to the root of modernity in a round about way by means of re-evaluating the validity of allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

  23. Michael,

    I don’t think logoi necessitate a static reality. Logos theology is not incompatible with evolutionary theory, in principle.

  24. With respect to both the whole macro/micro-evolution and ontological logoi thing (the latter being the only way in which the former distinction could even be made), I’ll just point out that Genesis 1 also makes a clear distinction between “earth” and “sea”, even sharper than that of life (which is “each according to his kind” without a clear definition of “kind” (genus? species? phylum? heritable traits only of immediate ancestors?)), but actually determining that boundary in any given real-life situation is a lot more problematic than Gen.1:10 would suggest.

    And yet it is eventually done, and most of the time it’s clear at least in hindsight. Same with determining species of life, which even now (is the dog a subspecies of grey wolf?) is actually quite tricky. Same hindsight-messiness can even be seen with some of the Ecumenical Councils – how clear was it really at the time that the Arians weren’t the true Church and the Trinitarians weren’t the ones that split off with a robber’s council? (Same question applies to the non-Chalcedonians, or the reverse for the Council of Florence.) Everything points to God having made things a lot messier and more complex than we limited, fallen humans would like them to be – and it can’t be blamed on the fallenness of creation either, given all the nuances and qualifications respecting the rules that Christ himself reveals to rebuke the simple, “black-letter” legalism of the Pharisees (Sabbath, Corban (contrast: whoever doesn’t hate their mother and father cannot receive the Kingdom), etc.).

    I just don’t see that these sharp lines and simple categories are necessary for the Christian faith, however good they may be for our expedience when dealing with some things.

  25. Boyd,
    Aristotle is not as large among the Eastern fathers as he became in the West and in Islam. He figures strongly in MacIntyre because of his Nicomachaen Ethics rather than his metaphysics.

  26. Robert except evolutionary biology however practical some of it may be starts with. he wrong premise: assume no creator. In fact, the creators of the theory specifically set out to replace the ethics and metaphysics of Christianity and the ontology.

    Sorry but any system that assumes no God cannot be compatible.

    Because truth is, it is impossible to ignore it completely so they get some things correct. That does not mean it is compatible.

    There is certainly change and transformation even transfiguration but does that really allow for transmutation on the natural level, solely by natural means?

    Darwin’s metaphysics triumphed because the Christianity he opposed had become largely non-incarnational; sacraments magical and men in charge.

  27. Robert it is difficult for me to believe Fr. Louth put an ax to the root of modernity when I heard him say “St. Maximos and the other Fathers need to be reinterpreted in the light of modern science”.

    I hope he has changed his mind on that. But for a critique of modernity, he is not the first person I’d choose.

  28. Modern science on the march: Psychologists in Italy gage done a study which shows that homophones are psychologically imbalanced suffering from among other things “religiosity”. Sure to be listed in the DDAMat some point.

    The transvaluation of all values.

    Modern science is both in thrall to the modern project and a driver of its ideology. It is not really science.

  29. Gregory,

    You might also find this Wikipedia article on the language of mathematics interesting, as well as Blaise Pascal’s Pensées and G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, if you’re not already familiar with these writings.

    À propos Chesterton, he also made a remark on evolution:

    “Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, «I think; therefore I am.» The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, «I am not; therefore I cannot think.»”

    (Orthodoxy, Chapter III)

  30. (And Pascal: “I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.”)

  31. Einstein and Goedel were buddies late in the life of the former. (Einstein liked him at least partially because he got to speak German with him.) About a decade ago some people applied Goedel’s insights in set theory to the physical universe and concluded that there could be no “Grand Unified Theory of Everything”. Goedel’s results seem to indicate that there can be no “strong” artificial intelligence, though some people get around this by saying that maybe the universe is inconsistent (with “inconsistent” being a formal, technical term). I don’t see how this could possibly work, but I’m a biochemist, not a mathematician.

    Goedel was a Lutheran who moved away from Lutheran dogma as he got older. But he didn’t abandon theism and he thought that Anselm’s ontological argument was correct. I have a soft spot for Goedel because the first time I heard Anselm’s proof explained (in a college class) I thought: “Of course, this *must* be true.” His paranoia was so great that, after his wife died, he starved to death because he couldn’t trust that other people weren’t going to poison him. (Was the insanity linked to the genius? I dunno.)

    My wife and I have homeschooled our eight children and are pretty familiar with the culture. I don’t think it’s a good idea, from a tactical point of view, to leave your children ignorant of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory in biology. Of course, it does look (to me) as if God brought all his current creatures to their present state through evolutionary processes. (It’s hard to study genomes comparatively and not see the signs of evolutionary changes.) Does acceptance of the theory cause problems with Biblical interpretations? Some literal ones of Genesis, sure, it does. But I think the furor for rational certainty that drove the Reformation and the Enlightenment had a parallel among religious folks that sought their ground-truth in a literal reading of their sacred texts. The Fathers are more nuanced.

  32. George,

    The quote from Chesterton sounds like Buddhism. No mind. Emptiness. Flux. No self, etc. Or maybe non-dual Hinduism (there is only one thing, etc.)


  33. Fr. Stephen,

    You’re a real conversation starter. Whenever I go to a gathering I’d love to have you along. (grin)

  34. Boyd,

    Well, yes, it could be that he had Buddhism in mind, since he even mentioned “the land of nothing and Nirvana” in the same chapter; but whatever it sounds like, he was critical of it.

    I’ve brought it up only because of the part marked in bold.

  35. Gene:

    I don’t think it’s a good idea, from a tactical point of view, to leave your children ignorant of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory in biology. …

    Thank you! This is the best attempt I’ve seen to properly articulate, without all the usual culture-war toxicity, why so many of us can’t just throw it all out for a simple reading of Genesis (or at least the creation of static, unrelated, nonpermeable kinds for all living things) without casting doubt whether it’s genuine thinking or an old unrepented passion.

    That Chesterton passage was a bit of a stumbling block for me for a while. However, it seems that what he’s really attacking is not the theory as we now know it (which as the basis for current (I’m trying not to use the loaded “M” word here) taxonomy cannot help but presuppose, or at least force everyone to act at all times as though, there really are things and kinds of things), but nominalism. Fr. Stephen has tackled this issue numerous times in the blog and in the comments (who has my continued thanks for helping me repent of this sinful method of thinking).

    Relatedly, while looking in my own blog for a post from last year about that Chesterton quote about evolution, I came across this:

    If a single poem or a single story were really transfused with the Copernican idea, the thing would be a nightmare. Can we think of a solemn scene of mountain stillness in which some prophet is standing in a trance, and then realize that the whole scene is whizzing round like a zoetrope at the rate of nineteen miles a second? Could we tolerate the notion of a mighty King delivering a sublime fiat and then remember that for all practical purposes he is hanging head downwards in space? A strange fable might be written of a man who was blessed or cursed with the Copernican eye, and saw all men on the earth like tintacks clustering round a magnet. It would be singular to imagine how very different the speech of an aggressive egoist, announcing the independence and divinity of man, would sound if he were seen hanging on to the planet by his boot soles.

    For, despite Mr. Wardlaw Scott’s horror at the Newtonian astronomy and its contradiction of the Bible, the whole distinction is a good instance of the difference between letter and spirit; the letter of the Old Testament is opposed to the conception of the solar system, but the spirit has much kinship with it. The writers of the Book of Genesis had no theory of gravitation, which to the normal person will appear a fact of as much importance as that they had no umbrellas. But the theory of gravitation has a curiously Hebrew sentiment in it–a sentiment of combined dependence and certainty, a sense of grappling unity, by which all things hang upon one thread. ‘Thou hast hanged the world upon nothing,’ said the author of the Book of Job, and in that sentence wrote the whole appalling poetry of modern astronomy. The sense of the preciousness and fragility of the universe, the sense of being in the hollow of a hand, is one which the round and rolling earth gives in its most thrilling form. Mr. Wardlaw Scott’s flat earth would be the true territory for a comfortable atheist. Nor would the old Jews have any objection to being as much upside down as right way up. They had no foolish ideas about the dignity of man.

    Which of course is countered or complemented in part by this.

  36. Boyd,
    First I would say that rather than doubting God, you should doubt yourself or whatever model of understanding that you’re using. I completely sympathize with the problem. Frankly anyone who does have such a problem is disturbing to me.

    I begin with Christ’s death and resurrection – His Pascha. Whenever I say “God,” I mean the Crucified-and-Risen-God-made-Man. I know no other God. I “know” the Father, because the Crucified-and-Risen-God-made-Man made Him known to me, but I cannot know Him apart from the Crucified-and-Risen-God-made-Man. I put all of my questions to the Crucified-and-Risen-God-made-Man.

    I think we have to say that suffering is clearly part of the world, and even has some mysterious relationship to the healing and salvation of the world. The story, the only story that makes sense to me and give me hope, is that we are a creation that threatens to move back towards non-being, and that movement is what we call suffering. But the same story is that God so loved us that He became what we are in order to rescue, save and complete His creation. I think that freedom is essential in all of this – that to become truly what God wants us to be (like Him), we also had to have the freedom we experience to move towards non-being. I accept that God’s love is measured and seen how He rescues us and unites us to Him, not in whether He simply prevents human suffering.

    The prevention of human suffering is the goal of Modernity, and it’s a false goal. Indeed, it shows us how demonic that idea and desire quickly become, thus justifying God’s decisions to allow suffering and to redeem us from it.

    I believe that, in the end, all things will be well, having found union with Christ in His Pascha. My task as a believer is to unite myself to Christ in His Pascha and to help others to do the same.

    There is no scientific reasoning that gives any explanation. Science only describes things – it can explain nothing. What you take to be an “explanation” is a religious account built on selected scientific ideas. It’s a false religion.

  37. The comment about doubting the existence of God did not come from me, though I have been in that place. Maybe there is another Boyd Camak out there?

  38. Re: prevention of human suffering and Buddhism, Peter Kreeft had a good analysis of Buddhism as a kind of spiritual euthanasia. Buddhists as I understand them make a distinction between different types of suffering and focus on our reactions which exacerbate the suffering that we cannot prevent and thus cause more suffering.

    Makes me think of the wise men from the east coming to worship the Christ Child. Those in darkness have seen a great light indeed.

  39. Boyd,
    Thanks for the head’s up on the fake comment. That’s not another Boyd Camak. It is a stalker who has been harrassing me and the blog for some time now. Very shortly he will be facing prosecution. Prayers please. And my apologies.

  40. Fr. Stephen,

    I’m honored by the prayer request. In fact I just found this prayer from an Orthodox parish website this morning:

    Prayer Against Demonic Influence

    Almighty God, Who delivered Your people from the bondage of the adversary, and through Your Son cast down Satan like lightning, deliver me also from every influence of unclean spirits. Command Satan to depart far from me by the power of Your only begotten Son. Rescue me from demonic imaginings and darkness. Fill me with the light of the Holy Spirit that I may be guarded against all snares of crafty demons. Grant that an angel will always go before me and lead me to the path of righteousness all the days of my life, to the honor of Your glorious Name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

    Perhaps everyone can join in this prayer.


  41. Fr. Stephen,

    The arrival of this stalker is not really surprising. You and this blog have been spreading a lot of light. It was only a matter of time before you came up on “the radar”. But it is God who has commissioned your mission and God who will effect His will by seeing you through it. Only by Him can we be anything. Be encouraged.

  42. Ah, but now the big problem: if we accept (and it seems we must) that the First Principle (or God or the Tao, or whatever one calls it) is impervious to reason, if we admit that our reason is useless when it comes the Grand Mystery, we have a very serious problem. And this problem is that we are still called to make a decision: Christianity (which form?), Islam, Buddhism, Taoism. The thing with which we normally choose among competing possibilities is our reason, if that is set aside by what do we make a choice? Our emotions? But our emotions are trifling things, easily misled. Our spiritual senses, our noetic capacities? But Orthodoxy admits that these are greatly damaged in most humans, and expecting people to decide on this basis is like asking a blind man to pick a suspect of of a lineup. Saying that reason cannot reach God seems awfully close to admitting agnosticism (no reason means no gnosis, so it seems). So, not our reason nor our emotions nor our spiritual senses seem useful for determining our response to the Grand Mystery (if there is one). Where does that leave us, if not cast adrift, unknowing but having it demanded of us that we choose rightly regardless?

  43. Corey,
    Reason is not of no use. It is simply not useful for all of it. The claims of various religions are fairly easily compared by reason, certainly to somewhat reliable level. For example, that Joseph Smith was a liar is an easy conclusion to reach. And in fact, the denominational claims of almost all Christian groups can be dismissed. There’s pretty much about 2 or 3 groups to consider.

    But having reached a reasonable conclusion, it is simply not enough. It is not “saving” knowledge. That requires something different. We have other ways of knowing (we actually know most things by something other than reason, math or logic). Orthodoxy has much to say about experiential knowledge, indeed, it is grounded in it.

    So where does that leave us? Asking some questions, learning how to learn in ways other than pure reason, and to stop thinking so darned much and learn to pray and live.

  44. Corey I think you maje too difficult. I am a blessed man. I have a wife who loves me and knows Jesus Christ. She shows me, by her love, a little bit of what Jesus Christ is like and who He is. That makes it easier to see Him in the sacraments and in other people.

    Where reason comes in, at least for me, is to discard doctrines and beliefs and actions that are clearly wrong.

    That of course not enough one has to say yes at some point as a little child. That is the part where transformation begins.

    The day I walked into my first Orthodox Church I was hooked. It has taken a lot of work and patience to dismantle my many false beliefs and begin to address my sins but that is the life. I am a hard case but Jesus is patient. He keeps tapping me on the shoulder to remind me He is there if I just turn around.

    There is always more. At least in God. More to know, more to love, more to forgive, more life.

  45. Hello and blessings to all!

    I hope this is relevant?

    I came across this very humorous and cogent statement from Chesterson that I got great peace as well as a bit of levity and few good laughs!

    “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do… Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine… He was damned by John Calvin… Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits… The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… Materialists and madmen never have doubts… Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have the mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.” G.K. Chesterton,

    Via con Dios!

  46. My apologies for being redundant but here is the short version:

    “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits… ” (hilariously accurate, dm)

    I have come upon a number of very interesting perspectives through much pursuit as well as happenstance in the last few weeks and days! It is really rather marvelous what is being revealed! one thing that has jumped out to me and I wrote this down, is; ” The loss of knowledge of the importance of mystery..”dm

    We can’t quantify God or put him in a box, like the current human endeavors would like, themselves and us to believe! Then they would throw away the box because as from time immemorial man has been spitting in the face of God, and exalting himself!

  47. “First Principle (or God or the Tao, or whatever one calls it) is impervious to reason…Where does that leave us, if not cast adrift, unknowing but having it demanded of us that we choose rightly regardless?”

    This is a good example of where the Enlightenment view of “reason” leads (Kant is a “positive” strain, Nietzsche is a “negative” strain and the more profound). Notice how “reason” is supposed to penetrate, and weigh everything in the balance. It IS God, in that it is wholly self sufficient and not contingent on anything else. There are no first principles (Tao) that reason stands on, because reason is its own self sufficiency (it goes all the weigh down, and when you contemplate the how far down it goes you never reach the bottom because reason has no limit).

    This view of reason is not only in conflict with just about every philosophy and religion that ever was, it in the end leads to its own destruction and negation (see Nietzsche). Most modern people are simply unwilling to push this philosophy to its logical conclusions.

    However, there is a way out of the conundrum – and that is to do a little “reasonable” thinking about reason and realize that it always, always stands on first principles that in themselves can not “proved” or otherwise circumscribed by reason itself. Even modern “enlightened” man has these principles (though he is in deep denial about them usually), and for him they center around his *desire*, mostly to avoid pain and wallow in pleasure. That is why his “reasonableness” is so narcissistic, is ever shifting, and is like sugar – all sweetness and no substance. Truly, the modern enlightened man is “cast adrift” on a storm of his own making.

    For Christians, it is not *Reason* that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”, because reason is but a tool and characteristic of the person, the soul (and not the soul itself). It is *Love* that penetrates the mystery, endures it, and lives it (and judges it). Love *sees* in the dark and the deep – reason is does not even begin to penetrate such things…

  48. Fr Stephen says:

    “…I do not share the critique that lumps nihilism with evolutionary (sic) science. It is not a necessary link…”

    I am not so sure that there is not a “necessary” link between science and a nihihilism. I used to, but now think that “science” as ideally described (let alone practiced) does not actually exist. In other words, “science” is an idealism from the beginning, based on a false epistemology/view of reason.

    Once you put aside all the false “scientism” on the scientific side and the false “literalism” on the religious side, you still have a fundamental conflict. The reason being is that “science” has an error at the core, and religion understands that we (and everything) were (quite literally – a proper “literalism”) *created*.

    Chesterton points us in the right direction (to quote the upstream quote):

    “Evolution is a good example of that modern intelligence which, if it destroys anything, destroys itself. Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, «I think; therefore I am.» The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, «I am not; therefore I cannot think.»”

    What Chesterton rests on is Realism vs Nominalism. There just is no escaping the nominalistic root of evolutionary theory certainly, and I think for “science” even when ideally described (and never practiced).

    Science is not “neutral”, though it pretends to be in the ideal – and of course its apostles use this false neutrality as a club to bludgeon everyone into line. Religion is more honest, and does not pretend to be neutral.

  49. It is said that for the angels in Heaven, Reason is adjusting orbital gaze for to always face the Holy One.

    Just yes and no, for to establish and keep the connection.

    It is said the Gravity bends SpaceTime. For the songs that are sung.
    It is said this pleases the Lord. I think we all serve and exist at His pleasure.

  50. Christopher, I agree with your comment about deified reason. Ironically, all the classical philosophers, mathematicians and scientists believed that first principles are not demonstrable.

    Today, people readily tell us that rationality and science have concluded some matters pertaining to the climate, gender, euthanasia, or whatever, yet these very persons bristle when asked to reveal the first principles informing their causes and methods, showing just how ignorant and silly they are.

    When I hear that science has “settled” something I can’t help but laugh out loud. What an ignorant bunch of apes our culture has produced and dares to call wise.

  51. Michael,
    Your comment reminded me of this: Romans 1:22 “Professing to be wise, they became fools,”

  52. Boyd, thank you very much for linking to Fr. Stephen’s post “Do Something”. Not only is that an excellent post, but in the first paragraph, Fr. Stephen makes reference to another post of his from a few days prior to that, entitled “The God who is no God.” That is also an outstanding post!

  53. Dionysius, quoting Chesterton, says:
    “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do…”

    From St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia:
    “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

    Finally, from St Anthony the Great:
    “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'”

    I have lately been reflecting on the (1966) French movie, King of Hearts. When at Church, I often feel like the character Charles Plumpick returning to the asylum.

  54. one point of mark with chesterton: the notion that poets don’t go mad seems obviously untrue: Plath, Poe, Anne Sexton, Stephen Haggard. So on.

  55. Fr Stephen,

    I appreciated very much what you stated earlier in regards the topic of evolution:

    “Everything points to God having made things a lot messier and more complex than we limited, fallen humans would like them to be…

    I just don’t see that these sharp lines and simple categories are necessary for the Christian faith, however good they may be for our expedience when dealing with some things.”

    This “messiness” as you rightly call it demands hard work and patience, careful analysis, and the willingness to take a nuanced approach to issues. This sadly seems to be in short supply of late.

  56. Hello Corey,

    Further along in the book “Orthodoxy”, Chesterson actually addresses Poe’s madness and quite a few others as well.
    I’m sure there are a few “holes” in the universe as well as most peoples perspectives and positions, including mine. Perhaps they’re unknowingly beneficial? Magic? Many of old mistook miracles by holy men for evidence of sorcery, because they could not understand or quantify, ones feats and actions. ( See “Merlin” in CS Lewis’ ” That Hideous Strength!) [Why Lewis’ whole “Space Trilogy” is not more widely known and discussed and presented to a “spaced out” populous as a blockbuster movie is a mystery??? Any movie producers out there? P-lease!!!]
    At any rate Chestersons book is a very interesting read and is making quite a lot of sense, in a world gone mad.
    I find it extremely hopeful and bursting with sanity, as most issues discussed here are, that really deal with the plethora of speculation and misconceptions we have mistakenly been presented as “Gospel”??? “Iron sharpens iron”.

    Adios, D

  57. [Why Lewis’ whole “Space Trilogy” is not more widely known and discussed and presented to a “spaced out” populous as a blockbuster movie is a mystery??? Any movie producers out there? P-lease!!!]

    I am going to pretend you did not say that…


  58. I have found two sources stunning in the light they shed on “the modern project.” The first, as others have mentioned, is C.S. Lewis’s book “The Abolition of Man.”

    The other is David Bentley Hart’s essay “Christ and Nothing,” which you can find easily (and free) at the “First Things” website. If I understand Hart aright, the crux of the matter is a shift in understanding (in the late Middle Ages?) in which philosophers and theologians began, erroneously, to regard will as “prior to” nature. Thus “freedom,” which had (correctly) meant “fulfillment of one’s nature” came to mean “unhindered expression of one’s will,” which may, in fact, be the most abject slavery of all. In our own day this error is in full bloom.

    Also helpful to me was Francis Schaeffer’s book/video series “How Should We Then Live?” As an Evangelical, Schaeffer proposes a modern solution (return to Sola Scriptura) to the problem of modernity; but he lays out the problem and its history in a fashion that was enlightening to me. As I recall, Fr. Stephen traces his “two-storey universe” image to an illustration that Schaeffer uses.

    As far as an Orthodox critique goes, neophyte that I am, I know of nothing better than Fr. Stephen’s writing on the subject. I might also recommend, however, some of the posts by Fr. Jonathan Tobias on his “Second Terrace” blog. It was he who first kindly directed me to Hart’s essay.

  59. “Do Faith to Have Faith:”

    “You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. «But this is what I am afraid of.» And why? What have you to lose?

    “But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.” (Blaise Pascal)

    “And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)

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