Volume > Issue > The Great Catholic Science Textbook Debate

The Great Catholic Science Textbook Debate


By Murray S. Daw | December 2011
Murray S. Daw is the R.A. Bowen Professor of Physics at Clemson University. He received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from CalTech in 1981, and has worked in industry, government labs, and academia. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society, and is a member of the Institute for Advanced Physics in Baton Rouge.

In the early 1960s the well-respected Catholic philosopher and scientist Vincent Smith sounded an alarm. Throughout the country, Catholic schools at all levels had begun introducing secular science textbooks in their classrooms. Smith warned that many of these textbooks contained an implicit philosophy antithetical to the Catholic view of nature. His announcement re-inflamed a debate that had been smoldering for years, in which many Catholics had been pushing for the demise of “Catholic science textbooks.” From our vantage point fifty years later, it is easy to see how the controversy was resolved: Virtually all Catholic colleges and universities use the same science textbooks that secular schools use. Catholic science curricula are deliberately molded to match their secular counterparts. This de facto resolution was achieved not on the basis of sound reasoning; rather, distinctively Catholic science curricula were swept away by the cultural tidal waves that washed over the country in that era.

Catholic Science Textbooks?

In 1964 America magazine published Smith’s article, “Catholic Science Textbooks?” in which he contended that all science texts are based on some implicit philosophy. All science must begin somewhere, and any approach to science must begin with some attitude, some assumptions about the nature of the world around us. Smith’s argument was based on the age-old Catholic understanding of reason, knowledge, and science. He quoted several eminent modern scientists who supported this view, including the eminent Harvard paleontologist Prof. George Simpson, who said, “All science is philosophical.”

Smith then asked whether the implicit philosophy of secular science textbooks is in fact consonant with a Catholic view of nature. This view is founded on the acceptance of certain simple facts, such as the objective reality of the world, the order and intelligibility of nature, and the ability of our minds to understand that order. Things in the world have a nature of themselves, by virtue of which they exist. Animate things have a nature that is intrinsically higher (that is, more intelligible) than inanimate things. Humans have an even more elevated nature. Central to the scientific enterprise is the concept of causality: effects have a cause. So when someone wonders, “Why…?” the answer is given in the form of a cause, “Because….” These first principles form the philosophical foundation of science. Without them, whatever is done could not be reasonably called science. Opening the first principles to examination is the beginning of making science fundamentally more rigorous.

Smith wrote, “While there is no Catholic natural science, there is need for science textbooks intended for the education of Catholics. The need for such textbooks is shown by the nature of the philosophy found in the actual live science teaching in the classroom.” He goes on to detail briefly some of the philosophical errors found in many of the secular science textbooks.

First on his list is the mechanistic view commonly found in biology textbooks. Simply stated, mechanism is the belief that living things are machines, composed of parts lacking any substantial relationship to one another. Thus, the source of a living being’s activities is not the whole itself but its parts or an external influence on the parts. Mechanism is opposed to the conception of life articulated by Aristotle and supported by St. Thomas Aquinas. Smith warned that the mechanistic philosophy “undermines our Christian view of the sacredness of the body and the dignity of work,” and that it would be “naive to assume that such commitments to mechanism (in the science texts) play no role in biasing a pupil against a later assimilation of Christian wisdom,” such as “the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension of Christ.” Smith added, “Why, a pupil might ask, should the human soul, after the resurrection of the human body, be reunited for all eternity with what is after all but a piece of machinery?” Smith observed, “There might not be a ‘Catholic biology’ (as such), but already there is evidence that the Christian commitment is at stake in typical (biology) textbooks now current.”

The list continued with the understanding of the relation between the brain and thought. He showed examples of textbooks that propound the view that man is only material and that thinking and willing are but physiological processes. This materialist view of nature denies substance, or the reality of form. “It is common to read in science texts that all substances are composed of molecules or that all substances are elements, compounds, or mixtures. Such statements…make it easier to understand why the Catholic student…is prejudiced against the idea that the human soul and God are substances.”

Smith concluded that “there is a kind of religion, a commitment concerning ultimates, in the teaching of even a subject so secular as science.” His examples leave no room for the view that secular science texts avoid imposing a worldview upon their science. Science, by its nature, is never neutral on the subject of reality, but is always based on a view of the world, and to that extent is grounded in philosophy. It is precisely this philosophical factor that “creates the need in Catholic education for special science textbooks.” A science textbook could be considered Catholic not because it employs pietistic examples (counting rosary beads in math, for example) but because of “its ultimate and philosophical orientation to or from the Christian message concerning man and the world.”

How did the readers of America react to Smith’s points? Though he did receive some support, succeeding issues for the most part carried a long string of letters to the editor that were strongly critical of Smith’s view.

Sr. Mary Jacqueline, vice president of Webster College in St. Louis, advocated “the absolute demise of the so-called Catholic textbooks in Catholic schools.” She contended, “I can’t see how there is a Catholic physics, Catholic chemistry, or Catholic biology.”

Raymond Barleon responded, “I agree that there is no such thing as Catholic natural science, but I see no reason to become alarmed at the statements of authentic modern science, and I oppose an attempt to inject science with a solution of Catholic philosophy of nature, especially Thomism.” He contended that a pure science, stripped of any philosophical prejudices, is in fact possible, and that any admixture of philosophy corrupts both philosophy and science.

Sr. Virginia Maureen, S.S.N.D., objected that “a science textbook with a Christian philosophical undertone would…add little to the student’s insight. Our students (should) not be exposed to ‘censored’ scientific literature. After all, we are preparing them for life.” She contended that the teacher can “impart” a proper “philosophy of science” in the classroom. By being “interested in” and “loving” students, the teacher will give them a “way of looking at the world through Christian eyes.”

Sr. Rita Jean, C.S.J., a science teacher, contended that because most modern physicists and chemists are not taught basic philosophical concepts, Catholic science curricula likewise should eschew them.

But Smith was not alone in his alarm, nor was he the first to issue warnings about modern secular trends in science. Almost all of the popes for the past century have decried the philosophical errors buried in secular science. [For a review of recent papal discussions on the point, see “Science & Catholic Culture,” in two parts, by this author, Oct. and Nov. 2009 — Ed.]

For the most part, the issue is now moot. Catholic schools in this country have deliberately embraced the secular science curriculum. Some are quite open about it. The provost at one Catholic school told me that he did not want to “punish Catholic students” by teaching science differently from the way it is taught in secular schools.

But not all teachers and administrators at Catholic colleges and universities are happy with this situation. There is a widespread but inchoate feeling that somehow something is not right with secular science being taught at Catholic schools. But many science teachers (and parents) have neither the training nor the resources to deal with the problem in a deeper way.

Some will argue that the history of science is characterized by its gradual emergence from the shadow of philosophy, and that modern science only surfaced and made real progress once it shed any last vestiges of philosophical thought. In this view, modern science is characterized by a purity and clarity that is made possible only when it focuses on measurement and mathematics. We can only be clear about something by specifying how the measurement is done, and by relating those measurements to a mathematical theory that unifies all discovery. In that regard, science should confine itself to those things that are defined in terms of measurement, and that can be expressed in mathematical relations. Any discussion about broader meaning impedes scientific progress.

Against this argument, how are we to understand Smith’s contention that all science is unavoidably based on philosophy? And why should we think that such an understanding is in any way good for science?

The view of science as an empirically and mathematically pure essence is tantamount to the notion that human beings are blank slates when they begin doing science; or, more precisely, that our cloudy, befuddled slates can be cleaned and made fresh by the modern science teacher, who can then begin the process of writing the clear messages of the empirical method.

But that view ignores the reality of how we know the world. As drawn out by Aristotle and reiterated by Aquinas, our only knowledge of the world comes through our senses. It is on the sensory images of the world that our intellect focuses and from which it determines the significance of what is sensed. It would be foolish to suggest that what our senses report to us is to be accepted at face value; rather, our intellect is able to sort through the sensory experiences to arrive at certain knowledge of the world. In fact, this is the most certain knowledge that we have: what is immediately sensible to us. It is the basis of science to assert, from the beginning, that nature is understandable, and that our minds are capable of understanding it.

The Cartesian attempt to purify science by denying its basis in sense and intellect is doomed to failure. As Ralph McInerny observed, “It is as if in doing [modern] science we are asked to hang on to the brush because the ladder will be taken away.”

Jacques Maritain, the twentieth-century scientist and natural philosopher, saw the modern approach to science as being extremely powerful, but also as being so narrow as to lack understanding. At its core, he observed, is a basic misunderstanding of the process of abstraction. Maritain built on Aristotle and Aquinas’s understanding of abstraction as a process, natural to the intellect, of extracting from our sensory experiences certain intelligible aspects, and regarding those aspects as though they could be separated from the original thing being observed.

For example, we see a red apple and our mind naturally — even without our being conscious of it — forms the abstraction of “redness.” The idea of redness is itself a universal abstraction, which originates in our seeing the individual apple. Over time, we see other red things and begin to form relations based on those observations. We sense particular things that are red, but our ability to abstract enables us to think about redness as though it were separable from physical things. It is important to note that redness as a universal occurs only in the mind — we never see a generic redness in the world, only particular things that are red. It is a potent thing to understand redness as an abstraction, and we can work in our minds with this abstract notion in very powerful ways. It would be a mistake, however, to forget that redness is itself an abstraction. In the real world, there are only things that can be red. Real things are much more than just one aspect of their essence.

Maritain observed that modern science has in fact made that fundamental mistake, not about the abstraction of color but about the abstraction of quantity. Modern science, especially physics, is based on the abstraction of quantity. All things have extension, which is the most fundamental aspect of material things according to Aristotle, and also the possibility of being divided into parts, from which we derive the abstraction of quantity. It is this quantity that forms the most powerful abstraction, precisely because it is the most basic aspect of physical being. The abstract power of resolving being into quantity forms the basis of mathematics (based on quantity and shape) and the applicability of mathematics to physics. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the mathematical abstraction is itself not the whole but is rather a transcription of part of what we understand about reality.

Furthermore, the modern empirio-mathematical method ascribes to the act of measurement something it does not have. A student asked me, “How do we really know what something is until we measure it?” It didn’t take long to show him his error: I challenged him to measure the “quidlucky” of the air in the room. He looked puzzled. I then told him that a very good measurement of the quidlucky yielded a value of 0.572 “targans.” Did that help him? After a few moments I could see in his face when the resolution hit him: “Measure does not precede understanding, but rather the opposite.” We cannot know how to begin to measure something unless we’ve first got some understanding of the aspect we’re to measure.

In modern physics, both in the conduct of professional scientists and in how it is taught to students, there is an emphasis on the mathematical as explanatory. In the modern approach, the only answer to “Why…?” is often an equation or a kind of abstract visualization suggested by some mathematics. This is definitely a partial answer to the question, but it is never complete to give a formally mathematical answer to a physical question.

A complete answer in any science must make a solid connection with the first principles of the science. In the case of physics, the most fundamental first principles would be: things exist. Things have properties (color, place, etc.). Things change. All change has a cause. Thus, a principled foundation to physics begins with the basic things we know about the stuff around us.

I ask my physics students a simple question: “What is momentum?”

Those who have studied physics previously will want to answer quickly: “Momentum equals mass times velocity.” This is an example of a formal, mathematical answer. This affirms a relation between various concepts (momentum, mass, velocity); it is a transcription of some understanding that is real. However, it does not explain what momentum is. I point out to the students that experience with momentum is common, everyday, continuous. So I challenge the students to try again to explain what momentum is, but using common, everyday language.

At this point the students smile — this should be easy — but upon further reflection most of them begin to squirm in their seats.

“C’mon,” I say, “you’re physics students! You’ve been studying momentum since your first course in physics. You should understand it very well. Wouldn’t you agree that if you understand something really well you should be able to give a simple explanation of it?”

Yes, they agree with that, but they’re still stuck.

“Well, if you found that challenging, then please explain kinetic energy. And don’t give me that kinetic energy equals one-half mass times the square of the velocity. Just tell me what kinetic energy is.”

This has them completely flummoxed.

That’s the usual response. There have been exceptions — maybe one out of fifty physics majors will be able to give some simple explanation of what momentum or kinetic energy is. It’s not the students’ fault. By and large, simple ideas are not taught. Rather, the students want to start writing mathematical relations — that’s what they’re comfortable with because that is all they have learned. But that means that they don’t really have a simple understanding of simple things. And if they can’t explain those simple concepts, how can they hope to understand more difficult concepts? Instead, they are positively encouraged to think that there is no understanding beyond the mathematical.

I’m not surprised to find people who have rather unpleasant memories of physics class, because to them the whole subject seemed quite abstract and dry. But how can this be? We’re talking about a deeper understanding of physical things, real things, moving and bumping and hitting things — things we have all experienced. How can such things seem remote?

Science based on principles is something that can and should be taught at an early age. Concepts such as change and causality are not in themselves difficult subjects. However, it is clear that such a principled approach cannot simply be added on to a traditional course. Rather, it must be integrated into the textbook. The author and teacher both must have a clear understanding of the principled approach.

A new textbook answers that call. I now teach freshman college physics using Anthony Rizzi’s Physics for Realists, which begins with a discussion of the first principles of science. These elementary principles should be familiar to all students, but few have ever heard or thought about them. In Chapter One they learn the fundamentals of the nature of properties, of change, of time, of causality.

Given this background, they are ready to make a simple step in the understanding of momentum: We know that every change must have a cause. Locomotion is a change of position. Therefore, locomotion requires a cause, which is what we call momentum.

(Nota bene: In case you think that force is the cause of locomotion, think carefully. After a force has acted and ceased, a body will continue to move unless acted upon by another force. For example, a ball will continue rolling unless it’s stopped. This continued motion is the result of a cause, which is the momentum of the body. The force was the cause of the momentum, and therefore is only indirectly a cause of locomotion.)

Simple enough: Momentum is a property of the body that causes it to change position.

This simple statement invariably produces a reaction. One girl in the front row slapped her hand on the desk and said, “At last! I’ve been trying for years to get someone to explain momentum to me!” Instead, what she had been taught was a kind of circular reasoning based only on force, with momentum pushed to the background. To deny the full reality of momentum, however, is then to deny causality. My front-row student was frustrated with teachers who couldn’t answer “Why…?”

In denying the existence of the first principles of science, the outcome is to kill science. As Vincent Smith said, no matter how the debate he provoked proceeded, it “cannot have, as its end result, the banning of philosophy from the teaching of science. This would be an impossibility. It would leave us not only with a dead philosophy but with no science.” Smith’s words have an ironic resonance to them because the “debate” never really occurred, at least not one based on principles and reasoning. The “impossibility” that Smith points to is exactly what is being attempted in Catholic schools these days.

The key, according to Smith, is establishing the proper relationship of principled thinking to scientific knowledge. “Philosophy is not only an instrument of the theologian but a critic of the sciences. To press it prematurely into the service of the theologian is to invite pietism. To ignore its implicitly critical function, even in elementary school teaching, is to court secularism. Balanced, in our genuine Catholic education, between these two extremes, we may advocate the demise of the pietistic textbook while awaiting the birth of a generation of truly Catholic textbooks.”

Vincent Smith was killed in 1972 in an untimely automobile accident. If he were alive today, he would have been disappointed by the long wait, because the generation of “truly Catholic textbooks” in science has been long in coming. The reason for their absence is the lack of the principled approach necessary to such an endeavor. Just two years ago, however, the best answer to Smith’s call was published: Anthony Rizzi’s Physics for Realists. This new textbook serves as a model for the use of the principled approach to science. It seems that the long wait for “truly Catholic” science textbooks might be over.

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