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A Mind Prepared for Wonder

E.O. Wilson

I enjoy reading Edward O. Wilson much more than Richard Dawkins, and recently I started to ask myself why this might be. Both are good writers and present difficult scientific concepts in easy-to-understand language. Both work in the controversial area of sociobiology and the evolution of human beings. Both are post-Christian thinkers with little interest in the nuances and delicacies of theological reasoning. What separates these two men? And, even when I don’t agree with him, what makes Wilson so appealing and interesting? I think it comes down to the fact that, while Dawkins is a biologist, Wilson is a naturalist.

In Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist, he tells the story of his development as a scientist, focusing particularly on his vigorous fieldwork from an early age. He vividly describes his first encounter with nature as a boy of seven:

"I stand in the shallows off Paradise Beach, staring down at a huge jellyfish in water so still and clear that its every detail is revealed as though it were trapped in glass. The creature is astonishing. It existed outside my previous imagination. I study it from every angle I can manage from above the water’s surface."

He continues with many, many stories about his early encounters with the natural world—not always benign!—and ends by asking:

"Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder...Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist."

While Dawkins may have an excellent grasp of various biological concepts, theories, data, and systems, Wilson has what I think St. Thomas Aquinas would call a certain level of wisdom—the organizing and ordering aspect of knowledge that leads one deep into the truth of the world. Wilson has spent incalculable hours in the field, watching and observing, collecting and synthesizing, and the result is a superior knowledge of living things. He demonstrates this integrated knowledge not only through his detailed drawings and observations (quite good for a non-artist), but also in such creative work as “The Anthill Chronicles,” a sort of Homeric epic found in his first novel, Anthill. Again, E. O. Wilson is not just a biologist; he is a naturalist.

In analogous sense—if the reader will pardon the comparison—we might say that St. Thomas is not just a theologian; he is a supernaturalist. And this is one reason he has had, and continues to have, such a profound impact on Catholic theology.

In the Second Article of the First Question of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas considers whether theology is a science—“science” being used here in the philosophical sense of “sure and certain knowledge derived from perfectly known principles.” He answers:

"Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed." (ST I, 1, 2)

Sacred science, or theology, is a science for St. Thomas because it has sure and certain first principles. But these first principles are not grasped by human reason—that would make theology, at best, a sort of philosophy—but by faith and in the light of faith. The principles of theology are, in fact, the knowledge of God and those blessed ones (the saints and angels) who look on God in the beatific vision. We, wayfarers along the journey of life, cannot see the principles of theology with complete clarity because we cannot see God before we enter into his glory. We can, however, have certain knowledge of theological truths, like the Trinity and the Incarnation, by means of faith—the acceptance of the revelation of God on the authority of God. And this revelation is found most completely in the person of Jesus Christ.

Thus, for a follower of St. Thomas, theology cannot be a matter of natural reason alone. The virtue of faith is essential to doing theology in the truest sense because only God and the blessed know these things certainly and entirely. So, while one who reasons through theological issues without the light of faith might be called a “theologian” in some limited sense, he is far from doing theology, properly speaking. It is the supernaturalist, I would claim—one who has the virtue of faith and continues to develop this faith through prayer, meditation, and the graces of the sacraments—who is the real theologian.

I like to think, then, that if St. Thomas were here with us today, he would find a kindred spirit in Professor Wilson—though of course he wouldn’t agree with all of his conclusions. Perhaps, developing this spirit further, he could even introduce Wilson to the wisdom beyond human understanding that is sacred doctrine. “Theology,” he might say, “does not destroy the naturalist, but brings him to perfection.”
This article first appeared on DominicanaBlog.com, an online publication of the Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph who live and study at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. It was written by Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P., who entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He received an M.Th. in Applied Theology from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, where he studied for the Anglican priesthood. Article used with author's permission.
(Image credit: The Guardian)

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The Order of Preachers, known also as the Dominican Order, was founded by St. Dominic in 1216 with the mission of preaching for the salvation of souls. With contemplative study serving as a pillar of Dominican religious life, the Order continues to contribute to the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason, following the example of such Dominican luminaries as St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Friars of the Province of St. Joseph administer Providence College in Providence, RI and serve as teachers and campus ministers in several colleges, universities, and seminaries in addition to serving as pastors, chaplains, and itinerant preachers. Follow the Dominican students at their blog, DominicanaBlog.com.

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  • felixcox

    "Sacred science, or theology, is a science for St. Thomas because it has sure and certain first principles. But these first principles are not grasped by human reason—that would make theology, at best, a sort of philosophy—but by faith and in the light of faith."

    I believe this best fits the phrase, "having your cake and eating it too." While I have no doubt you are well-intentioned, you distort or appropriate the meaning of 'science' to encompass first principles NOT grasped by reason, but by faith. It is an incoherent use of the word, unless one considers the writer is straining to prove that faith is indeed reasonable. It's not, however, and I don't get it why believers twist themselves in knots trying to prove otherwise. Or rather, I should say I find it amusing and fascinating. I was once a devoted christian and remember feeling the need to justify my faith.

    And if your revelation can be most perfectly found in the person of Jesus Christ, then you are in serious trouble, for there is nothing but circumstantial evidence and ancient hearsay justifying any belief about Jesus; at least, as anything other than a mortal man. Using the gospels, it is far easier to view christianity as a polytheistic off-shoot of Judaism than to arrive at the tangled logic of the trinity. Like a Rorschach test, believers in the gospel can cherry-pick verses to construct whatever god/demi-gods they choose.

    • Vasco Gama

      I am a sceptic, and tend not to believe in things I can't experience, but I am a Catholic sceptic, and sure I believe in the existence of God and of souls, based on reasonable faith, of course it is reasonable for me, and maybe not reasonable for someone that doesn’t believe, I have to recognize and accept. But that there are a variety of things I acknowledge to exist on reasonable faith (and experience), which are quite difficult to prove such as free will, human reason, love, beauty, moral values or consciousness (which are pretty much the grounds of human existence).

      In fact I believe in those things and I experience those things, in spite I can’t provide any empirical evidence for them. In fact I am not the only one to believe in such things, (regardless of being believers or unbelievers) we all (better said most of us) believe in those things (free will, human reason, love, beauty, moral values or consciousness), in spite of knowing that it is very difficult to find empirical evidence of them. In fact when I am writing this I am also assuming that I am addressing people that possess of at least some of those qualities, quite boldly I take it on faith (in spite of my natural scepticism).

      • josh

        Vasco, I'm trying to find evidence that you are a sceptic. It's not leaping out at me. I for one don't believe in free will as you seem to mean it. I believe beauty and moral values are subjective evaluations, which have plenty of empirical evidence, (as does reason and consciousness), but values aren't objective facts, which is the sense in which I suspect you use them. A key point to scepticism however, is not just that you experience something, but that you try to prevent misinterpretation of your experience.

        • Vasco Gama


          In fact I am a sceptic by nature as I feel a strong compulsion in disbelieving things I can't access though experience, or that strike me as deprived of logic, but that is my nature (as you don’t know me you have to take my word on this, or not). I know that believers are not supposed to be that way (and yes I have and hard time trying to understand many particulars of my faith and keeping it rational as many things are not so straithforward as one could naively suppose).

          You are quite right all those things are subjective in the way we experience them, it doesn’t follow however that they are not objective, however different people find reasonable to argue that their meaning is relative, and purely subjective, others take them to be illusions.

          But when you say “A key point to scepticism however, is not just that you experience something, but that you try to prevent misinterpretation of your experience.” I have to disagree with you the “to prevent misinterpretation of your experience” is an intent of any conscious creature, not only of humans, and even less of sceptics alone. Of course one can find reasonable to admit that some people (by any criteria one can arbitrarily define) are more rational than others (or that such a class of people are wiser), it is only a presumption (unless proven it is worth nothing). I will admit that a naïf person (that as propensity to believe without a
          serious judgement), in principle, is more easily deluded.

          • Casey Braden

            I think Josh's point is that, while you may be a skeptic when it comes to most things, it doesn't sound like you apply that skepticism to your religious beliefs. I don't think this is necessarily problematic, but some of the confusion is probably related to the fact that Josh is referring to the sort of philosophical skepticism that many atheists hold to, which advocates for a suspension of belief on a position until sufficient evidence is provided to support it.

            I would also have to agree with Josh that the sort of skepticism I am referring to requires one to be skeptical of his or her own experience, since those experiences are based on our sensory perceptions, and the human senses are not always reliable. An example I like to use is the time I went to a magic show and watched the magician saw a woman in half. I experienced this event. I saw it with my own two eyes, and everyone else in the audience saw the same thing. Yet the most logical explanation is not that the woman was ACTUALLY sawed in half. Magicians are skilled in tricking the human senses into perceiving things other than what is actually occurring.

          • Sqrat

            There is a real skill involved in being an illusionist. There's a technique -- you have to know what you're doing. Is the same thing true of God? When he performs a miracle, does he know how he does it?

          • Vasco Gama


            I guess that Josh knows the difference between a skeptic (or philosophical skeptic as you say) and an atheist, this qualifications denote very distinct things, most atheists are extremely naïf (and could hardly be qualified as skeptic), unless you arbitrarily don’t make the distinction. If that is your understanding of it then I am no skeptic (but that was not what I meant). And in this case I have to say that atheists (as any other person), contrary to their own experience that tells them that free will, human reason, love, beauty, moral values or consciousness are real objective experiences on their lives (on the everyday life), most of them have no firm convictions on the existence of any of those things (and dismiss them at will according to their own subjective notions). Humans know very well that they are objective and the knowledge of those things have been addressed as objective, in aesthetics, ethics and moral, philosophy, metaphysics, natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, literature, music, arts and theology and every area of human knowledge. It is a fact that there are a number of philosophical insights that pretend to emphasize the subjective nature of those experiences, such as idealism, or more recently variations of metaphysical naturalism (either through reductionism or eliminativism) that propose that they are somehow illusions. Anyway we don’t experience them as illusions, no one says (or pretends) to have an illusion of free will, on taking a decision. No one acknowledges beauty as an illusion, or experiences joy while hearing a piece of music, or while reading a poem. No one argues with some else, and checks is reasoning with the suspicion of being an illusion. I do not have an illusion that I am addressing someone who is not sure if he is able of acknowledging reason and logic. I love my children and I am sure that they love me, it is preposterous to consider those experiences as illusions. But then I guess this is one of the incoherencies of those philosophies (yes it is possible to live with them and consider them as rational in spite of the incoherencies).

            I agree with you that we are subject to deception, when admiring a magic trick, we know that we are seeing a magical trick, and that we being deceit. Is that a reason for you not believing the things you believe, or does it just applies to me (because, for some mysterious reason, as an atheist, maybe you are immune to deception)?

          • Casey Braden

            I'm not sure who you are directing that rant at, since atheists have no unifying set of positions on those things you describe. Nor did I make any claims that I DID think any of those things. The only thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods. You seem to think that all atheist (or most, as you claimed) hold to some version of solipsism, which I hardly think is the case.

            I was merely trying to explain why I think Josh was having a hard time with the fact that you call yourself a skeptic. I never claimed that I was immune to having my senses deceived. That I why I am SKEPTICAL of my senses when I experience things that seem out of the norm. It is completely possible that I may experience something, but draw completely incorrect conclusions about what I experienced. All humans are capable of making these sorts of mistakes.

          • Vasco Gama

            Sorry, I thought you were somehow suporting Josh's positions, which was not the case.

          • josh

            Vasco, skepticism applied to religion yields atheism (or agnosticism if you prefer). Casey Braden expands on my point above. People confuse experience with knowledge, but they aren't the same thing (except perhaps for knowledge of what you think you experienced). A mirage is as real as any other experience but the interpretation of it is mistaken. A person who thinks they see water in the desert does not have knowledge that water is really there.

            Atheists aren't immune to deception, but they are generally correct about religion and certainly not naive on that subject. In your other comments you are conflating several things. 'Love' isn't an illusion, it is an experience for yourself. You can 'know' that your children love you in turn based on experience, i.e. empirical evidence. But of course you can't simply 'know' that your children love you in the absence of any evidence or in the face of contrary evidence. Free will, on the other hand, is an illusion. All the evidence points to the fact that your decisions are the outcome of a determined, physical process. Of course, you will still make decisions, you will experience what it is to be a decision making machine. It's just that there is nothing magical or non-physical about that process.

            Beauty, again, is an experience that you have. But if someone else doesn't have that experience for the same object, this is not because they fail to see some objective property of that external object, but because beauty is inherently subjective.

          • Vasco Gama


            I am not interested in redefining what skepticism is, I used the term skepticism as it commonly is (if for you skepticism is the same as atheism, as I said before it is not what I meant, and I was quite clear from the start).

            You are confusing a variety of things knowledge is “what we know (or presume to know)” and nothing else, and in fact it may come from a variety of ways, or if you want, we can know by a variety of ways, from experience, learning, reasoning, etc…

            It is not a fact that “People confuse experience with knowledge”, or that a mirage is anything other than a mirage.

            The presumption that atheists are “are generally correct about religion” is only your opinion. Clearly it is not the case, usually (not always) they possess a limited knowledge on religion, based on caricatural and simplistic ideas propagated by the tribal culture of their community. Claiming that “certainly not naive on that subject” is preposterous, typically they are not even capable of grasping the concept of God (atheist have in common that they all deny God’s existence, but typically presume that the denial of a grotesque tyrant is even remotely reasonable for that matter). In the best cases they are able to reproduce a few quotations from the Bible to support their case (which is at best ridiculous). A few atheist (not many unfortunatly), however do have a good knowledge of religion.

            Of course I know that my children love me from experience (supported by evidence) and the fact that is that this is usually the case. The fact that reality is ordered universally
            in this sense, points (or constitutes empirical evidence) to the fact that children loving their parents is an objective reality.

            Why do you say that free will is an illusion, how did you came to realize that, what was (or is) the evidence that supports this extraordinary claim (that we have brain,
            and that we possess brain activity as we take decisions, is that it?).

            But then maybe you are saying that we can actually make choices (or better said that we have free will), “All the evidence points to the fact that your decisions are the outcome of a determined, physical process. Of course, you will still make decisions, you will experience what it is to be a decision making machine.”, in fact you are affirming that we have free will, and you found that maybe we have a “decision making machine”, well that is original, but delusional. Not magical though (I agree with you).

            As for beauty (clearly you are confused). As I said before the fact that each one of us experiences beauty (or love, cognition, consciousness, as our own experiences (i.e. subjectively) that doesn’t make those things not objective. Beauty is something that is universal, if I see a Chinese painting from the VI (or VII) dynasty I would be able to recognize beauty, much in the same way as a Togolese, or an Egyptian (that helped to build the pyramids), or a Turk (from the Ottoman empire) can recognize beauty, and even if we cannot speak the same language we would be able to express our joy for it.

          • josh

            Vasco, you seem to be getting long on blustery assertions and short on arguments. I didn't say that skepticism and atheism are the same thing, I said one leads to the other.

            "Knowledge is what we know" isn't exactly a useful definition, but you don't seem to be following my point. Experience by itself isn't knowledge except in the trivial sense of 'I know what I feel'; experience must be interpreted and we say, roughly, that a reasonable interpretation is knowledge. 'Learning' is an example of this. A mirage is a fine example of someone confusing their experience with knowledge.

            It is of course my opinion that atheists are generally correct about religion, but it isn't a presumption, it is a conclusion. Studies have shown that atheists know more about religion than any religious group.

            "The fact that reality is ordered universally
            in this sense, points (or constitutes empirical evidence) to the fact that children loving their parents is an objective reality."

            First, notice that I never said that children loving their parents isn't objective, some definitely do. But this isn't 'ordered universally'; some don't. And the point is that we know this by empirical means.

            I realized that free will is an illusion by 1) realizing that it isn't even a coherent concept and 2) realizing that it was an extraordinary claim in the face of all available evidence. I think you are mixing up 'will' and 'free will', we have the former, not the latter. In the former sense, we are exactly like machines, albeit very complex ones.

            On beauty, what you are noticing is that their are some basic similarities between almost all humans. Hence you and someone from a different culture may both find something beautiful. But you and another person may also disagree on whether something is beautiful, and what you don't have, even in principle, is an objective way to decide that argument.

          • Vasco Gama


            It makes no sense to extend further this discussion, I guess I was clear enough and I think I fully understand what you are saying. I will not say that we fully agree, because it is not the case.

            I just want to make one on two points more clear. When we speak of free will, no one thinks it is an absolute exercise of the will, in the sense that we evaluate all the possibilities all the time, it is not the case my point at, sometimes we can
            chose from a two or more choices and we weigh the pros and cons and decide freely according to our reason (that sometimes mislead us in doing not exactly what would be considered best on another occasion, or at a slightly different situation). The idea of doing it like a machine seems to be an oversimplification, but I guess I see what you mean.

            When I speak of the objectivity moral values, or the love of felt by children to their parents, or beauty, in fact I am referring to that objective character that you understood, I don’t mean to say it is an absolute.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      > Sacred science, or theology, is a science for St. Thomas because it has sure and certain first principles.

      Natural or philosophical theology is using reason to say whatever can be said about God and man's relationship to him.

      Sacred Theology or theology proper is using reason to study the data of Divine Revelation. From the Catholic perspective, theology is the rational study of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church. If Divine Revelation really is Divine Revelation, and the Magisterium really can interpret it correctly, and if your reason is working well, theology is a science.

      Again from the Catholic perspective, theology rests on what the Church calls "preambles of faith," that is rationally-based arguments, that if they work, give one confidence to accept the assumptions made above.

  • Sqrat

    Aquinas might have used both faith and logic to try to answer the question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Both Wilson and Dawkins would answer it by counting the angels.

    • Actually, that angels-and-pins canard doesn't come from Aquinas but from his adversaries, who either distrusted his reliance on logic or who didn't like him because he was Catholic.

      But looking for the angels and not finding them, and thinking that proves something, is like looking around a building for the architect, not finding one, and ergo denying the existence of architects. God is not a thing in the world, but being itself. Angels come and go, and most people never see one, but God is.


      • josh

        Gods come and go, as, ultimately, do the people who invent them. Aquinas's approach is to build an imaginary castle in the air, declare that this proves an architect, and, noticing that the architect shares his ascetics, conclude that his tastes are objective absolutes.

        • Actually, the building in the analogy is the universe as a whole, so it's not imaginary, unless you're an idealist in the metaphysical sense. But even if you are only willing to accept the universe as a working hypothesis, the analogy still holds.

          Aquinas developed a very rigorous set of proofs concerning God, and I don't think it's valid to dismiss them in an off-hand way. It's what I would call anti-intellectual. I don't mean that as a personal attack, but only as a quality of the arguments that I think you are advancing. Actually, Aquinas quoted extensively from people who didn't agree with him, so as to give their views a fair hearing. And then he answers them, point-by-point. You might not find his answers convincing, but you can't accuse him of ignoring the other side in any argument.


          • felixcox

            I have read Aquinas. His arguments rest on unfounded assumptions. I don't dismiss him out of hand- I dismiss him because his "proofs" are rationalizations built on faulty/flawed assumptions which are not established. On the other hand, just saying, "read aquinas, he proved belief is rational," is a dodge. If christian belief is so rational, proving it so shouldn't require combing through the writings of a medieval philosopher.

          • "I have read Aquinas. His arguments rest on unfounded assumptions."

            Can you be specific? Which argument? Which assumptions?

            "If christian belief is so rational, proving it so shouldn't require combing through the writings of a medieval philosopher."

            I agree, but I think this is anon sequitur. Something isn't *less true* because it's difficult to comprehend. Imagine someone saying: "If quantum physics is so rational, proving it shouldn't require advanced scientific study"

          • felixcox

            Brandon, I have many many objections to Aquinas. For starters, his uncritical acceptance of the veracity of scripture and catholic tradition.
            As to your suggestion that something is not necessarily less true because it's difficult to understand, I agree. However, I didn't lay down that general principle. The subject was specifically about proving God's existence. If you are defending the idea that believing christian dogma is rational, it doesn't help your case when you have to defer to medieval theologians.
            Tangentially, this reminds me of a devout Mormon friend I had in high school. I was a devout christian at the time, and we both tried to convince the other the truthfulness of our beliefs. He pointed out that if I only read the book of Mormon, I would KNOW its truth in my heart, as it is so written in the book of Mormon. I certainly perused it, but I couldn't be persuaded to read the whole thing... bit off topic, but it just came to mind.

          • "For starters, his uncritical acceptance of the veracity of scripture and catholic tradition."

            But this is way down the line when arguing about God's existence.

            "If you are defending the idea that believing christian dogma is rational, it doesn't help your case when you have to defer to medieval theologians."

            Again, this is a poor objection. The same could be said about quantum physics: "If you are defending the idea that believing quantum physics is rational, it doesn't help your case when you have to defer to high-level quantum scientists."

          • felixcox

            I don't get the analogy. You seem to be asserting that christian dogma (including claims of ancient miracles) are as provable as the mathematical equations of quantum physicists!? You don't see any epistemological difference between a field based on math and science, and another that relies on claims of ancient miracles (aka magic)? I find that a little astonishing.

            As for Aquinas, you asked for an example of faulty assumptions, and I gave you one. Does it not count just because the flaw "is way down the line when arguing about God's existence?"

          • "You seem to be asserting that christian dogma (including claims of ancient miracles) are as provable as the mathematical equations of quantum physicists!?"

            Sorry for the confusion. This is not what I was asserting. My point was that the complexity of a topic has no bearing on whether it's true. Just because philosophical argument for God may seem difficult to comprehend, that's not reason to dismiss them any more than dismissing quantum physics for its own complexity. Wouldn't you agree?

          • felixcox

            Yes, again, I agree that in general, whether or not something is difficult to understand has no bearing on its truth claims.
            Maybe we are conflating two distinct subjects; the existence of some kind of prime mover, and the truth claims of christians. The former claims are so abstract, since they deal with the beginning of time itself, which is such a mind-bender! The latter claims, I would suggest, are much much much more specific, yet much more extraordinary, since they have to do with suspending the laws of nature that we all take for granted. Those claims require extraordinary evidence. There isn't any, beyond hearsay and speculation. It is to those claims, specifically of that of a god-incarnate who defies death and flies up to heaven, that do not benefit from referrals to medieval theologians. Theologians, though smart for their time, knew so much less about anthropology, comparative religion, human psychology, evolution, etc.
            Theology defending orthodox christianity rests on supernatural claims and the belief in evidence unseen (aka faith). Not the same as science. It just rings false to me that a perfect, benevolent god would require reading dense theological tomes for searching humans. Surely such a god would make himself much more available and believable... the believer usually mumbles about god's mysterious ways. Not convincing at all to one who doesn't believe.

          • josh

            Actually, my point was that the universe doesn't work the way Aquinas thought it worked. The analogy you are trying to draw is hopelessly flawed since it starts with the implicit assumption that the universe is like a building, i.e. something that is built by a builder.

            I've taken apart some of Aquinas's arguments in considerable detail in other threads, as have many other people. There is nothing anti-intellectual about pointing out that he drew flawed conclusions, based on bad premises, tainted by the very non-rigorous desire to reach the predetermined conclusions of his religion. There is something anti-intellectual about declaring that faith is higher than reason, as Aquinas did.

            Aquinas cited ostensibly opposing arguments mostly from other Christians, but that is just part of his format. It is about a convincing as a young-Earth Creationist pamphlet offering a naively phrased old-Earth Creationist talking point before 'refuting' it by appeal to a Biblical passage. Aquinas was a great systematizer of Catholic thought, but not an impressive critic of his own work.

          • josh, I don't think you're right here about Aquinas, but I'll save that for another time.

            I'd just like to ask a question that's been confounding me for a while: why do you spend so much time on this site?

            I mean that sincerely. I appreciate your typically insightful comments, but you seem to be routinely disgusted by articles on this site (as your regular disdain makes clear). I honestly can't remember you commending any article or any comment from a theist. You seem to display deep cynicism about God, Catholicism, theists, and this sort of dialogue.

            Therefore, I'm genuinely curious: what would provoke a guy like you—a well-educated, convinced atheist—to spend so much of your time on a site like this?

            I have to admit, if I came across an atheist site that was as bad you seem to think this site is, I would probably never visit it again. But here you are at Strange Notions, day in and day out.

            I'm just curious what's attracting you here (because I want to amplify whatever that is!).

          • josh

            Hi Brandon,

            The short answer is of course that I would like to change someone's mind. Even if it is not to an exact alignment with my positions, I would hope to move some people to reconsider their own and move off the status quo.

            Partly this is because I think religion causes real and active harm in the world, and partly just because it bugs me that nonsense is accepted as fact by a large number of otherwise reasonable people. If the world were full of moon-landing-hoaxers and a few religious types, I would probably spend my time arguing with the hoaxers. I also like educating people on topics like physics even when it isn't directly part of a religious argument.

            I ended up sticking around this site because 1) you invited the conversation, 2)it's not so heavily trafficked that there is no point in entering a thread, 3) you update regularly, and 4) there is at least some attempt to engage with the points made by non-believers. It's not that the site itself is bad, it's that I can find the same bad arguments anywhere and this seems as good a place as any to get to work.

            That said, I seriously considered leaving with the exodus of other commenters due to your moderation behavior. But I didn't want this place to become just a boring Aquinas admiration society, with stories about how the atheists left in a huff without reeeaaally refuting your beliefs. This is a sort of experiment on my part. Catholics tend to believe that they have some impressive intellectual framework to rely on, that even if one isn't a fellow believer one must admit it is internally consistent. This isn't so, but it is easy for a believer to dismiss drive-by comments as 'not engaging with the full scope of religious thought', or 'addressed rigorously by theologian X, even if I don't fully understand it'. So I've made this site an occasional project of sustained criticism. I'd like people to see that it's not just a few nagging doubts or internal quibbles among theologians, the whole structure is rotten through and through.

            Since the large majority of the posts are pro-Catholic, I almost always find things to criticize. Some of the topics, like movie reviews, just don't have much content worth commenting on. The other day, you had an article lambasting Atwill's Roman conspiracy hypothesis. I didn't say anything because the gist of it was correct, Atwill's claims really don't hold up. So most of my comments are going to be critical because, well, that's what I'm here for. I also try to answer questions about my own systems of thought. I think we agree that dialogue is important, so I'm doing my part, as it were.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I obviously find the dialogue that takes place on SN worthwhile, but I've also found a much different but very impressive site called the New Apologetics.

            I'd invite you to take your questions and criticisms there as well. The website has articles and the dialogue takes place on their Facebook page.

          • "The short answer is of course that I would like to change someone's mind. Even if it is not to an exact alignment with my positions, I would hope to move some people to reconsider their own and move off the status quo."

            But that still leaves me wondering *why* this is a worthy (or even possible) goal. If you're an atheistic determinist--as I believe you are, but correct me if not--how *can* you change someone's mind (and ultimately why would that even matter)?

            Most of these people you will never meet. Almost none of them will have any noticeable effect on your life. So if, as you claim, your goal is to prevent "real and active harm in the world," why spend so much time engaging them?

            Finally, I'm curious whether you derive any sort of meaning from these exchanges. If I were a convinced atheist, and adopted the worldview that flows from that conviction, I doubt I would waste my time on a site like this when I could be engaged in so many other worthwhile activities. We all have an extremely limited amount of time, so I'm curious what sort of meaning does this site provide you to deserve such a large commitment of yours?

            I ask all these questions sincerely. I genuinely want to know.

            "But I didn't want this place to become just a boring Aquinas admiration society, with stories about how the atheists left in a huff without reeeaaally refuting your beliefs."

            I'll ignore the snide and snarky criticism--which I've increasingly learned to filter out of your comments :) --and again ask, *why* this would matter to you, on atheism. Even if commenters on this site are wrong, there are millions of people wrong about millions more things—including other worldviews that pose much larger threats (e.g., Islam). I'm still intrigued that you feel so drawn to spend your time on a site like this.

            If your reasons above were true, it would make far more sense to dialogue on Muslim/atheist forums.

            "So most of my comments are going to be critical because, well, that's what I'm here for."

            Ah, now I think that's a poor reason to visit this site (or any site). I struggle to see what value self-appointed Internet critics provide outside of incessant frustration on the part of others and self-gratification on the part of the culprit.

            It's simply unproductive and unhelpful. I think you'd be far more persuasive in your goal to have people consider your criticisms if your fundamental orientation was toward charitable dialogue, learning from each other in a mutual exchange of ideas instead of assuming your role is only to criticize those of others.

            This is part of the reason why I'm typically hesitant to converse with you. First, you're remarkably bright and are wayyyy out of my league in many areas. Many times I'm not well-versed enough in a subject to intelligently discuss it.

            But second, dialoguing with you is, to me at least, like discussing cuisine with a cranky food critic. He's never satisfied, he's always angry, and the conversation never produces any real fruit. It's a waste of time, and a frustrating one at that.

            So in sum, I do appreciate your comments here, josh, even the critical ones. Yet I suspect there's something more drawing you to this site than you let on. Your answers don't fully explain why you would spend so many hours each week trying to criticize and tear down Catholicism. Hopefully one day, we can discover what reason is.

          • Andre Boillot

            "If I were a convinced atheist, and adopted the worldview that flows from that conviction, I doubt I would waste my time on a site like this when I could be engaged in so many other worthwhile activities."

            Brandon, help me out here. When somebody wishes to learn what this site is about, they find the following:

            StrangeNotions.com is the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists. It's built around three things: Reason. Faith. Dialogue. Each day you'll find articles, videos, and rich comment box discussion concerning life's Big Questions.

            Yet with Josh, we learn that you don't understand why he would waste his time on a site like this. I'm curious, did you only want unconvinced atheists? Did you only want mutually reassuring discussion between these two factions? You complain that Josh is like a cranky food critic, yet have hosted numerous articles that atheists have found condescending, snarky, patronizing, etc.

            Come now, you wonder why he spends so much time trying to tear down Catholicism while arguably spending more of your own time trying to do the same to atheism. Those of us who have followed this site long enough already know that when you say that you want to foster dialogue, what you really mean is converting atheists to Catholicism or defending the faith. Fair enough, what with it being your site and all. However, you don't see us insinuating what else might be motivating you. How about you return the favor to Josh and the rest of us?

            PS. As comments such as this tend to illicit the usual "why are you here?" from you, I'll say that I find the discussion enjoyable, often educational, and occasionally hilarious.

          • josh

            I think perhaps you overestimate my 'commitment' here. I'm not even in the top five commenters even months after 3 of those five left the site. It's just a hobby I've taken up for a little while.

            Why would an atheist determinist try to change peoples minds? Well, first put aside that atheism has nothing directly to do with determinism. But being a determinist only means that if one could take an outside-the-system perspective, then everything would be predictable/determined. One piece of the system (myself) can certainly influence another (some reader) and I don't have the information to know whether or not I will be successful.

            I don't know what you want by 'ultimate' meaning, but it is meaningful to me. I care to have the argument, I care what people believe and what they do. What more needs to be said? Now the actions of religious people definitely affect me because I care about other people. E.g., no one will prevent me from having an abortion but I don't think other people should be prevented either. Now religion is a big and multi-faceted problem. It's not like I can just get the pope into an argument and solve the problem if he concedes a point. It's like an election, my actions individually are small and perhaps irrelevant, but if it is a worthwhile cause (to me) then it is worthwhile to work for the right side of it. Is Islam a bigger problem than Catholicism? Arguably, and I'm equally critical of its followers. But look how hard I have to work with people like yourself who claim to want rational argument and share more of a cultural background with me! Will I make more headway trying to draw a pro-Jihad zealot into a debate on causality? There just isn't an obvious 'best' strategy to adopt, so I'm working with one that is currently convenient.

            Also, I probably wouldn't be doing this if I saw no hope and hated every minute of it. I'm a critically minded person and I enjoy a good argument, even when I don't think the opponent has a leg to stand on. There is something fun about dismantling a bad position. There is also no reason it shouldn't be fun, which is why I think you make a mistake in trying to discourage any and all wit, snark, irony, sarcasm etc. Finding a clever way to say something is part of the process, and pointing out a flaw using slightly indirect means isn't a gratuitous insult. But the most important thing is: don't ignore the criticism because of the format.

            You say criticism is 'unproductive and unhelpful'. But if, for the sake of argument, you are wrong, and if I want you to change your mind, what else could be productive and helpful? If you go to a website like Dawkins's or Jerry Coyne or others you can find plenty of testimony from people who changed their minds and credit it to the critical work of such outspoken atheists. I'm very much for charitable dialogue, which is why I try to correctly represent another persons views and to honestly present my own without dodges, but that doesn't entail ignoring the errors another person makes. I'm happy to learn from others, but, well, I don't run into much new in the arguments here and in particular, I don't run into arguments that are good enough to make me change my positions. I think, if you don't want as critical an exchange, then you will have to stop approaching this as a Catholic apologist. You don't seem to treat most of these topics as open questions which you wish to discuss, but as defenses of definitive Catholic positions, which, allegedly, can be demonstrated by reason.

            I know tone can be hard to read through comments, but I'm not angry with you, although I'm of course occasionally frustrated with intransigence. This is the type of conversation that will not seem fruitful to you until it does, if and when you change your mind on anything. (Or I do.) C'est la vie.

          • Mary B Moritz

            Josh, to be honest, I am not sure that your argument will invite believers to let-go of their faith. I am really not sure if it worthwhile the effort.

            What I am sometimes wondering is what makes you and some of your colleagues so "apologetic" in your mission? It's useful to ask or to discuss for learning purposes, okay, but just for trying to pursuade someone that there is NO God - is this really worthwhile? Just a question.

            And I agree with you that some arguments are better than others, but btw Aquinas is great and he gives credit to all sides. Sometimes he takes examples from nature - they are sometimes quite a bit off, but science made some progress, so that's okay.

          • DannyGetchell

            I would question that Aquinas desired "to reach the predetermined conclusions of his religion" given that he faced very substantial condemnation from the Catholic fundamentalists of his day.

            The small number of Catholic thinkers today (are there any?) who reject Thomism and its underlying Aristotelianism is evidence that what Church teaches is actually quite malleable over time.

          • josh

            Far be it for me to argue that Catholicism has never changed its teachings or approach. But Aquinas's religion is still his religion, regardless of whether his version of it differed from other peoples religions in the same tradition. Aquinas seems directed throughout his arguments at reaching certain conclusions essential to his faith, or simply taking them for granted. These are things like the importance of scripture, the reliability of the Apostolic tradition, God's omnipotence, authority, goodness, knowledge, etc.

            He was of course deeply impressed with Aristotle, and his project was to syncretize his revered Philosopher with his revealed faith.

          • It was more like this: When the Christian West received the Greek writings from the Muslim world and translated them, Aristotle was revered pervasively by the scholars. It would have been silly of St. Thomas not to deal with Aristotle, but he did not accepted Aristotelian teaching without question. He corrected what he thought needed to be corrected while staying as true to it as possible, the same way scholars today advance knowledge.

            Also, as an aside, the Catholics at the University of Paris rejected a long list of Aristotle's teaching because it did not jive with reason and revealed religion. One of the ideas they rejected was the idea that objects fall to the ground twice as fast if they are twice as heavy, something ancient Greeks and Muslims alike failed to note in daily life because they stayed so true to received teaching without challenging it. They also rejected the idea that celestial bodies were divine and magically moved, instead arguing that a natural forced moved them. The "impetus theory" led to Newton's first law of motion, and the birth of modern science.

            Bottom line: You can't legitimately argue that St. Aquinas blindly accepted Aristotle's teaching. You can legitimately argue that the Christian Creed purified it to be more consistent with the real and natural world.

          • josh

            "You can't legitimately argue that St. Aquinas blindly accepted Aristotle's teaching."

            I didn't. Aquinas was trying to reconcile the two, serving two masters if you will. I would say the Church was a higher master for him, but that's what I said before. His religion dictated certain conclusions he had to 'prove'. Or can you point me to doctrinal points where he concluded Jesus or scripture were mistaken?

            But it's quite a bold claim that "the Christian Creed purified it to be more consistent with the real and natural world" ! What in the Christian Creed improved on Aristotle with respect to the natural world? The Trinity? Transubstantiation? God nature and Man nature in the same thing? 'Perpetually' virgin births?

            Aristotle's abstract intellectual unmoved mover(s) is the same as the Israelite god of sacrifices and magic displays is the same as a dead Palestinian preacher circa 30 AD?

            Of course, there are contributions like 'impetus' from Christian thinkers in the pre-scientific era, just as Galileo and Newton were themselves Christians, seeing as almost everyone in Europe was a Christian. But it is pretty imaginative to find 'impetus' in the Bible. I've seen people try to argue that Christian doctrinal points forced people to concede that Aristotle could be wrong. That's kind of a tough argument to make with any surety, but regardless, it only reinforces the point that religion was dictating people's conclusions. Sometimes history proceeds with one bad idea dethroning another, that doesn't legitimize the second idea.

      • felixcox

        "God is not a thing in the world, but being itself." Wow, then you must disagree with traditional notions of christianity, such as the historical claims of the gospels vis a vis Jesus's life. Defining God as being itself would make you akin to a Deist.
        And no, the claim that architects exist is provable in a beyond-doubt way, whereas christian claims of supernatural events thousands of years ago, are not provable in a beyond-doubt way. Obviously, people make a case for the latter, but beyond doubt?? That's ridiculous. Even many believers doubt it!

        • Chicagoish

          Defining God as "being itself" would indicate that the individual is a "classical theist" in the vein of Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Maimonides, and Aquinas. In fact, for thousands of years philosophers (Christians included) posited that God cannot be conceived as a being, but being itself. Deists, on the other hand, very well may conceive of God as a being, i.e. "The highest possible being." The distinction is that deists don't believe that God acts in time through miracles or revalation.

          • felixcox

            I agree I was sloppy to the point of inaccuracy, sorry. I'm was trying to point out the inconsistency between the mystical idea of god as everything/ being, contrasted with the hyper-specific christian claims that an incarnated version of God was born a virgin, lived a human life yet non-human life (christians believe Jesus was perfect, which is not very human), performed so many miracles that they couldn't be written down, and himself defied death, reappeared after crucifixion, and was last seen levitating up to outer space. The latter is pretty hard to reconcile with Glenn's "God is not a thing of this world."

          • kuroisekai

            Then you have a quite distorted and incorrect view of what Christianity teaches. God is not a being, but being itself. God is one in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The differentiating factors between God the Son and the other two are that He is a) the Redeemer of the World, and b) incarnate. So the Venn Diagram that represents God "not a being but being itself" and God in the "hyper-specific" Christian claims is a circle. The former is a metaphysical reality. The latter is a physical one. That is, Jesus is the Second Person of God (one that is not a being), but also a hyper-specific physical person who was born of the virgin, and died at the cross.

      • Sqrat
        • "There's never been any such thing as spaceships."
          "Yes there have. In July 20, 1969..."
          "That's history. History's bull****."

  • Casey Braden

    Wilson and Dawkins are fine, but neither of them can hold a candle to Carl Sagan when it comes to conveying a sense of wonder and awe about the natural world.

    • Paul Boillot

      Pffft, Feynman.

      Although in a pinch I'll take all of the above.

      PS. NdGT

  • Geena Safire

    It seems disingenuous for the authors to publish this article now, extensively quoting from Wilson's autobiography -- while not quoting from nor even mentioning Dawkins' autobiography which was published last month, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

    While Dawkins may have an excellent grasp of various biological concepts, theories, data, and systems, Wilson has what I think St. Thomas Aquinas would call a certain level of wisdom—the organizing and ordering aspect of knowledge that leads one deep into the truth of the world.

    E.O. Wilson is a highly-accomplished and highly-reputed leading biologist, researcher, theorist, and environmental activist, among the handful of the most famous biologists in the world and deeply insightful about sociobiology which revolutionized the field. Of all this there is no doubt.

    However, it seems odd that you would dismiss Dawkins who is also a leading biologist, researcher, theorist and science-education activist, among the handful of the most famous biologists in the world and deeply insightful about evolution. The ideas in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, revolutionized evolutionary biology.

    Dawkins' ideas also wrestle with deep questions about nature and make this knowledge accessible. Another of the 20th century's leading biologists wrote of The Selfish Gene: "This book should be read, can be read, by almost everybody. ... It succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of using simple, untechnical English to present some rather recondite and quasi-mathematical themes of recent evolutionary thought."

    Perhaps it is of more interest to this article's author to read about something more visible and tangible, such as ants and their social order, than something more theoretical and microscopic, such as DNA and the forces of evolution. Perhaps Wilson's Pulitzer-winning bestseller non-fiction writing is more appealing than Dawkins merely bestseller non-fiction writing.

    But I wonder if the author might be influenced by the difference between the two with regard to religion. Dawkins is a self-described militant atheist who believes that religion is harmful to individuals and society, and wrote The God Delusion.

    Wilson, on the other hand, is a deist. " In his book The Creation, Wilson
    suggests that scientists ought to 'offer the hand of friendship' to religious
    leaders and build an alliance with them, stating that 'Science and religion are
    two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save
    the creation.' "

    Of course, I could be completely wrong about this idea.

    • Geena, you're reading too much into this. This article was written before Dawkins' memoir was announced. No need to psychoanalyze the author.

      • Octavo

        Dawkins is over discussed anyhow, IMO.

  • Horatio

    Here here. We need to hear more about the Wonder of science for its own sake, rather than science merely as opposed to religion. Dr. Dawkins has made more contributions as an Atheist than he ever did as a Biologist (and though The Selfish Gene is a work of stunning clarity, it was not exactly a quantum leap, and it has serious detractors in academic biology who see it as far too gene-centric). When Steven J. Gould died, Dawkins lost the only biologist with the stature (greater than his, I'd argue) to denounce his unnecessarily hostile attitude towards religion as well as his particular views on evolution (and denouce he did!).

  • Mikegalanx

    "I like to think, then, that if St. Thomas were here with us today, he would find a kindred spirit in Professor Wilson"

    Would that
    be before or after he had him put to to death?

    "I answer that, With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one,
    on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side
    there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from
    the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by
    death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which
    quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.
    Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned
    to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for
    heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only
    excommunicated but even put to death."

    Or are you assuming that if St. Thomas had been born in these times he would be a much more civilized person?

  • Steven Carr

    The trouble with Dawkins is that he lacks Christian humility.

    He should stand in front of a mirror, take a good long hard look at what he sees, and tell himself 'Only a God could have created me.'

    Once he learns humility, then he will be worth talking to.

    • Great Silence

      Very funny, Steven, thank you.

      So that's the way Dawkins can be converted.