Sort Out the System of Wills

Sort Out the System of Wills

 Stacy Trasancos

The often-quoted remark from St. John Paul II to the director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. George V. Coyne, S.J., in a June 1, 1988, letter states the twofold nature of the dialogue between science and faith: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

I want to talk about this “wider world,” and I have termed it the “system of wills.” The wider world can be described as a system that contains God’s law, which is the supreme law, the laws of nature, which are scientific laws, and the free will of creatures. Let me explain each of these parts in more detail.

The Supreme Law and Laws of Nature

St. Thomas Aquinas explains in the Summa Theologiae that there is an order in nature of causes and effects. God is the first cause, the Creator. As St. Thomas asserts, citing St. Augustine, God’s law is the supreme law. Everything created, in entirety, is subject to this supreme law. The will is a mover; it is a cause of motion. God wills everything into being.

God is not subject to secondary causes, such as change and motion in the physical realm, including the particles (like atoms and the particles that make them up) that are invisible to the human eye and are moving according to the created laws that govern them. The physical realm of matter follows the laws of nature created by God. These are the laws that scientists observe and explain with theories because the laws are consistent and predictable.

We will take into account living creatures in a moment, but before any created being (in this case, a scientist) is inserted into the system of wills, a point needs to be stated. The scientist is self-aware of the experimentation underway by using his own free will and intellect. Nevertheless, there is no mathematical accounting for free will in the isolated systems of chemistry or physics, and yet it is within this purity of physical system that a physical scientist strives to calculate. We know we are trying to reduce everything to a machine-like existence, but that is the only way we can study it.

It is no different for a scientist to conduct experiments in the system of wills than it is for a the pizza maker to test a recipe. For example, a chemist or a physicist works by defining an isolated system to the best of his or her ability, removing every other factor, controlling the variables, and examining the effects of changing other variables. The scientist is aware that the system exists within the rest of the universe, which contains beings, and that the universe is not absolutely closed and inanimate. Scientific research is necessarily materialistic, but that doesn’t mean reality is materialistic, just that we must define our systems to make sense of tests.

If, however, there were no other created being with any kind of will, intellect, or instinct, then the physical realm would follow—to the elementary units of matter and energy—the laws of physics as God designed and determined them. The only will that could alter the particles following laws of physics would be God’s will. But God didn’t just stop there.

Rational Beings with Free Will

Now let us people the world and consider the free will of creatures, particularly the created rational beings. These rational beings with free will and intellect are angels (bodiless souls) and humans (body and soul). Each is a mover; they are causes of motion. Just as God can will to move particles, so too can rational beings with free will cause motion, but in the limited ways in which God designed them. We can kick rocks, overcome grumpiness if we are hungry, and build integrated circuits capable of storing entire libraries. We cannot change a rock into diamond, live indefinitely without food, or make children stop growing. Animals are movers in the physical realm as well, but they do not have rational souls. Their motions are governed by instinct, which is why anyone with a dog knows that as loyal as he is, he cannot be trusted to guard your sandwich. Nevertheless, creatures move matter in ways matter left to its own devices would not move.

It helps to compare humans and angels briefly, although our focus in this consideration of faith and science will remain on humans since we are the ones who do science. In his treatise on the angels in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas—referencing Pseudo-Dionysius, a theologian and philosopher from the late fifth to early sixth century—says that angels are purely intellectual beings or “heavenly minds.”  Their dignity surpasses that of humans. Intellect for angels is perfect at once “from their very nature”; that means they instantly know all they are created to know. Angels very well may know, if God wills it, all about the location of electrons in any atom. As free agents, angels can intervene in an otherwise strictly physical reality too. Since the angels who chose goodness apprehend only goodness, they always will what is good. The angels who chose evil always choose evil. Indeed, one may rightly wonder about the unrealized benefits that guardian angels can be to scientists. I’ve often wondered if I could go back to the DuPont labs, if I might invoke help from my guardian angel, but I digress.

The point is that we have a lower intellect than the angels. Aquinas explains that humans pursue perfection in knowledge of truth by “discursive intellectual operation.” Humans must advance from one thing to another rationally, as we do using the scientific method, wherein we observe, hypothesize, experiment, and form conclusions and new questions for the next round. Discursive implies progressing in a slow or irregular manner, sometimes over a wide range of topics. For angels, there is no discursive process because “in the truths which they know naturally, they at once behold all things whatsoever that can be known in them.”  In addition, our choices to act cause us to intervene in an otherwise deterministic world to move matter, just as angels can and just as God does. Humans, as rational beings (movers), are both subject to the laws of nature and capable of moving matter.

Miracles and the Law of Nature

Do these rational movers of matter (God, angels, and humans) break the laws of physics? This is the next logical question, one that is often asked by scientists who do not understand that the rational creature has a spiritual soul with the power of intellect and free will. St. Thomas says no: “Therefore since the order of nature is given to things by God, if he does anything outside this order, it is not against nature.”  In the hypothetical case that only God and physical creation existed (as scientists may well envision the world only while conducting experiments), God’s intervention to move particles outside the created order would not break the laws of nature because all matter would still be following the supreme law (God’s will).

Technically, according to St. Thomas, this would also not be called a miracle because, although nothing has happened outside the supreme law, miracles are specifically meant for humans. Miracles reveal God’s presence to us, and we notice miracles because something outside the usual order of nature occurs.

Does human free will break the laws of nature? Again, no it does not because God created rational beings with free will. I borrow a concept from the great thinker C. S. Lewis. In his 1947 book Miracles, he refers to nature as a “hostess.” I also like his use of the word incommoded. Of the intervention in physical nature he says, “We see every day that physical nature is not in the least incommoded by the daily inrush of events from biological nature or from psychological nature.”  If a cup of tea is invaded with sugar, for example, physical laws rush to accommodate the newcomer. If tea is stirred, physical laws follow suit.

In perhaps a less elegant manner, I prefer to think of nature as a “medium” rather than a pleasantly smiling female eager to fetch the cookies. Matter and energy follow laws of physics, designed by God, and they form the physical medium in which we live, a medium that accommodates the actions of our free will. Therefore, when a violinist pulls her bow across the strings to make music, she intervenes, and nature accommodates. If we throw a ball off the roof, it falls to the ground and, unless another person intercepts it, the projectile motion is calculable. To repeat, these actions of free agents are not breaking the laws of nature—they are following the laws of both nature and supernature, the total system.

Consistent with St. Thomas Aquinas, Lewis also emphasizes that miracles do not break the laws of nature, as we already discussed, for they are factors that affect nature that are beyond nature. Notice how free will and the laws of nature all fit together. We see the fullness of reality at every Mass. The bread and wine miraculously become the Body and Blood of Christ. We receive it into our bodies, and our digestive system digests it. During our lives, we move a great many atoms. If a woman becomes pregnant, the physical medium surrounding the child accommodates his or her conception. The supreme law and laws of nature are interlocked. If a man builds a house and a couple raises a family, they surely have altered the course of uncountable particles, including ones that are far away and affected by an infinitesimal amount, like in the atmosphere. When we say that humans are stewards of nature, we are referring to our created intellect and free will.

Nature assimilates our actions, harmonizing them with physical events. If we host parties, build homes, mend clothes, decorate windows, or change the oil in automobiles, we intervene in nature. You get the point: our activity causes matter to change, extensively, and beyond what matter left to its own devices would accomplish. As nature’s particles accommodate the interventions of free agents, they do so by following preordained laws of physics and chemistry. We do not change the laws. Nature accommodates us. There is a hierarchy in nature. We are higher in the order of causes and effects than the horsehair and wood that constitutes violin bows.

God created physical matter and God created free agents, so together these form the whole systematic universe. Some nonbelievers think that science has all the answers, and the laws of physics may cover the whole of time and space, but as Lewis puts it, “What they leave out is precisely the whole real universe—the incessant torrent of actual events which makes up true history.”  Rational beings literally can chart the path of history.

Lewis goes on to say that a “miracle is emphatically not an event without cause or without results” either, which again is consistent with what St. Aquinas says. Christianity obliges us to acknowledge that God can intervene in the world for the sake of our salvation by causing miracles. What is a miracle, then? St. Thomas calls a miracle something God does outside the order of nature “which we know.”  To us, miracles may seem to break laws of physics, but miracles do not break the supreme law. Miracles are when God exercises his free will for the sake of our salvation, to make himself known to us. If God wills to move particles, it cannot be modeled or predicted with human calculation because miracles are not predictable and are outside the natural order, and that is why physics cannot study miracles.

There are some interesting questions that result from this understanding of the hierarchy in nature. Does this mean that in the past humans have mistaken events for miracles when, in fact, they simply did not yet understand the physics? Perhaps, but God would have known the extent of human understanding at that time. Does this mean that angels can move matter, but we can mistake the event for a miracle? Perhaps, but the good angels only will what is good. Does this mean that, in theory, if we could stop time and motion and study all particles fully, we would find all the physical laws? Perhaps, but I have no expectation of ever achieving that, although it is an enjoyable thought. Does this mean there might be a hierarchy of wills, and those higher animals such as dogs fit into this hierarchy (much higher than cats!) and can therefore intervene in nature and be accommodated by it? Yes, I think so. Just watch puppies at play! All speculation aside, we can say with certainty that mathematical models will never fully account for every particle’s motion because of the free will of rational beings.

Thinking in terms of this system of wills helps us sort out every faith and science question. Now let’s put it to work.