Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., is a Jesuit philosopher who serves as president of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and of the Spitzer Center. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from The Catholic University of America and was the president of Gonzaga University from 1998 to 2009. His research focuses on philosophy of science, logic and ethics.
Father Spitzer’s five books include New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010), for which he won the Catholic Press Association Award for best book in faith and science. His media appearances include Larry King Live (debating Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow and Deepak Chopra on God and modern physics), the Today Show (debating on the topic of active euthanasia), The History Channel in “God and The Universe,” the PBS series “Closer to the Truth” and the Hugh Hewitt Show. He has also appeared on dozens of nationally syndicated radio programs.
On Dec. 6, I interviewed Father Spitzer by email about his work.
You often write and speak about faith and reason, debating scholars like Stephen Hawking on television. What is the goal of your work?
The media and educational culture today present a mixed message—not only to the young, but to all educated people. Some scientists and educators argue that physical reality exhausts the whole of reality—and therefore, that science is the only appropriate methodology for discovering truth. Yet, there are many new discoveries that present precisely the opposite view—using scientific and empirical methodology (e.g., the B-V-G Theorem, new evidence concerning entropy and anthropic conditions at the Big Bang, peer-reviewed medical studies of near death experiences, and new studies in the philosophy of mind—see explanations below). Most people want to be intellectually honest—and certainly don’t want to be criticized for naiveté—and so they want contemporary answers to their questions about God, a transcendent soul and transphysical reality that will stand the test of scientific and intellectual rigor.
Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned and well-educated people do not know where to begin the search for answers, and so they are compelled to listen to the loudest and most popular voice—instead of the most comprehensive voice—in the traditional and social media. This leads inadvertently to a violation of the first principle of informal logic: “There are far more errors of omission than commission.” As the recent Pew Surveys on the changing landscape of religion in America (2015) and Religion Among Millennials (2010) indicate, these errors of omission have led many—particularly the young—to simply slip away from their faith. As they lose interest they become “closet materialists” and many experience the negative consequences of losing transcendence and religion in their lives. These consequences, according to a 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, include increased suicide attempts, impulse aggressivity, meaninglessness, despondency, familial tensions and substance abuse (see Dervic 2004 American Journal of Psychiatry V).
My focus, and that of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith, is to set out as much probative scientific and philosophical evidence as possible to corroborate God and transcendence—so that people may make their judgements about transcendence on a comprehensive basis instead of a merely partial one.
I don’t think anyone should abandon God or transcendence without examining the following contemporary evidence of them, including:
- The Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Theorem for the beginning of any universe with an average Hubble expansion greater than zero (this necessarily includes all multiverses—as explained below—See Borde, et. al 2003 Physical Review Letters V. 90-15).
- The evidence from entropy and dark energy, which militate against an eternally oscillating (“bouncing”) universe (see Carroll 2007 Discover).
- The presence of low entropy at the Big Bang necessary for life to originate, develop and evolve (which is exceedingly improbable—10 raised to the power of 10 raised again to the 123 to 1 against—see Penrose 1989 The Emperor’s New Mind pp 343-344).
- The presence of universal constants with precisely the right values to avoid universal disaster for all life forms—at the Big Bang (which is again exceedingly improbable—see Davies 1982 The Accidental Universe and Gingerich 2000 The Book of the Cosmos).
- The peer reviewed medical studies of near death experiences that indicate a strong likelihood of a transphysical “soul” (capable of seeing, hearing, consciousness, thinking, remembering and movement) after bodily death (indicated by a flat EEG, fixed and dilated pupils, absence of gag-reflex—see Parnia et. al 2014 Journal of Resuscitation Oct. 2014 and Van Lommel 2001 The Lancet V. 358-9298). The studies of Dr. Kenneth Ring are important because they show that 80 percent of blind people have accurate visual perception—most of them for the first time—when they are corporeally dead (see Ring et. al 1999 Mindsight: Near Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind).
Though this evidence can be complex and difficult to understand for those unfamiliar with contemporary cosmology and ontology, it is worth knowing that the evidence exists and even gaining a basic familiarity with it. The Magis Center website has free videos explaining this evidence in a basic—mostly non-mathematical–way. I also give detailed explanations of this evidence in two books:
New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010—hereafter “New Proofs”) and,
The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason (Ignatius 2015—hereafter “Soul’s Yearning”).
What are some other rational approaches to God?
There are several other rational approaches to God that are consistent with contemporary scientific discoveries, but not directly derived from them (discussed in the above two books). Those who have an interest in philosophical proofs will want to read Lonergan’s proof of God in Insight: A Study of Human Understanding Chapter 19 or Craig’s and Sinclair’s Hilbertian proof of a beginning of all past time (see Craig et. al 2010 The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology pp. 101-201) or my contemporary metaphysical argument for God’s existence in New Proofs (Chapter 3).
For those interested in approaching transcendence from a mathematical viewpoint (e.g., Gödel’s Proof–see Lucas 1961 Minds, Machines, and Gödel, and Penrose 1994 Shadows of the Mind). For those interested in implications of transphysical processes in human cognition (e.g., David Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness), see Chalmers 2010 The Character of Consciousness. Those interested in quantum mediation of transphysical consciousness and the corporeal brain will want to read the work of the Nobel Prize winning physiologist Sir John Eccles (see Eccles 1983 Mind and Brain, and 1990 Proceedings of the Royal Society B v.240 pp. 433-451) and the famous physical chemist and polymath Michael Polanyi (see Polanyi 1968 Science v.160-3834 pp 1308-1312 and 1969 Being and Knowing). All the above indications of transphysical consciousness and cognition in human beings are discussed in Soul’s Yearning (Chapter 3 and 6).
There is also evidence of divine presence within pre-thematic human awareness—for example, Rudolf Otto’s transcultural study of the numinous experience (in Otto 1958 The Idea of the Holy) and Mircea Eliade’s transcultural study of the intuition of the sacred lying at the root of all religion (in Eliade 1987 The Sacred and the Profane).
As can be seen, the contemporary evidence for God and the transcendent “soul” is multi-faceted and probative. When this is combined with classical evidence (e.g., the five transcendental desires for perfect truth, goodness, love, beauty and being) it is difficult to straightforwardly maintain a purely materialistic or physicalistic stance. Our hope at the Magis Center is to provide free web resources to reinvigorate the rational grounding of faith so that religiously oriented people—particularly the young—can confidently maintain their transcendent dignity, destiny and fulfillment.
Who is your audience?
We focus on millennials—from 15-35 years of age—and also adults with some college education who are asking valid questions about the commensurability between faith and science—particularly in the areas of the reality of a creator and our transcendent “soul,” evolution, “The Bible and Science,” scientific method versus other modes of inquiry and yes, even—aliens. We are particularly interested in reaching high school teachers, collegiate professors (in theology and philosophy), seminarians and seminary professors.
Briefly put, do string theory and the multiverse contradict a theocentric view of creation? Why or why not?
They do not. Every multiverse must be inflationary, and as such, is subject to the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Theorem. This theorem requires that any universal configuration with an average Hubble expansion greater than zero have a beginning in the finite past (see Borde et al 2003 Physical Review Letters v. 90 -15). Since all multiverses are inflationary, they must meet the B-V-G condition, and so they must have a beginning. Furthermore, universes in the higher dimensional space of string theory also meet the one condition of the B-V-G Theorem—meaning that they too must have a beginning (see Borde, et. al 2003—as above).
The applicability of the single condition of the B-V-G Theorem is so vast that one of its formulators, Alexander Vilenkin (director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University), was compelled to say, “It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe…. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning” (see Vilenkin 2006 Many Worlds in One).
Apparently Vilenkin believed that the B-V-G Theorem in combination with the evidence from entropy constitutes such a “proof.”
Does God exist? Why or why not?
The most fundamental way we know of God’s existence is through our inner awareness of Him and the Sacred. This fundamental awareness is cross cultural and present in virtually all people of all religions who are open to it (see the studies of Otto 1958 and Eliade 1987 cited above). God’s existence is also known interiorly through our five transcendental desires (for perfect truth, love, goodness, beauty and home) which were initially discussed by Plato, Saint Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, but brought into the contemporary theological arena by Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar and many others. These authors are discussed in detail in Soul’s Yearning, Chapter 4).
The existence of God is also recognized by specially inspired people—prophets, priests, biblical authors, saint and church leaders. The authenticity of these individuals can be judged, as Jesus indicated, “by their fruits.” Authentic religion has throughout the centuries confirmed the interior awareness of the Sacred and Divine—and has helped countless generations to connect with it, derive “grace” from it and find ultimate meaning, dignity, fulfillment and destiny through it.
Strong as these interior and religious indications of God are, there is additional extrinsic or objective evidence for an intelligent creator, a transcendent soul and life after death. These extrinsic or objective kinds of evidence are not limited to scientific or medical studies, but span a wide range of logico-philosophical proofs of God (e.g. Lonergan 1992 cited above, Craig and Sinclair 2010 cited above, and myself—all are discussed in New Proofs Chap 3-5), studies of the hard problem of consciousness in Chalmers 2010 cited above (discussed in Soul’s Yearning Chapters 3 and 6), and studies of irreducible non-physical cognitional processes (in Eccles 1983, and 1990 cited above, and Polanyi 1968 and 1969 cited above– discussed in Soul’s Yearning, Chapter 6).
In addition to all the above interior and extrinsic evidence, scientific and medical studies have come to the fore in the last 70 years, and have provided additional evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator through the combination of space-time geometry proofs (like the B-V-G Theorem), the evidence of entropy, and the highly improbable occurrence of needed anthropic conditions (see sources in the first question above). Furthermore, peer-reviewed medical studies of near death experiences (particularly those of the blind) suggest strongly that human consciousness, perception, memory and movement survive bodily death (see sources cited in first question above), and in many cases the surviving persons are led to a loving and heavenly domain (see Soul’s Yearning, Chapter 5).
In brief, there is considerable extrinsic evidence from metaphysics, ontology, philosophy of mind, consciousness studies and even scientific and medical studies to confirm what God has made known to us interiorly and through the world’s religions.
In today’s scientific climate, what is the best argument for God’s existence?
I would maintain the best evidence from science is the combination of the B-V-G Theorem, the entropy evidence and anthropic conditions at the Big Bang. This evidence is quite probative even when considering the multiverse and string theory. The combination of the B-V-G Theorem with the entropy evidence has convinced Alexander Vilenkin and others of the requirement for a cosmic beginning (see the above quote and also Grossman 2012 New Scientist). Some physicists have tried to avoid this conclusion by hypothesizing an eternally static universe prior to the Big Bang (which would avoid the single condition of the B-V-G Theorem—a universal expansion rate greater than zero). However, this hypothesis is logically contradictory (see Spitzer Soul’s Yearning, Appendix I) and is undermined by certain quantum implications (see Grossman 2012 quoting Vilenkin). When the evidence for a cosmic beginning is combined with the implications of intelligent selection of universal conditions and constants at the Big Bang, it grounds reasonable and responsible belief in intelligent creation.
It may be objected that a multiverse can explain how our universe just happens to have the above exceedingly improbable conditions and constant values at the Big Bang. However, the need for fine-tuning of all known multiverse hypotheses (to avoid collisions of bubble universes, etc.) seems only to move the “fine-tuning” problem back one step—instead of resolving it (see Alabidi, et. al 2005 Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics June 2005 (5), and Gordon 2010 in Spitzer New Proofs pp 75-104). This is discussed in Spitzer New Proofs Chap 2. Inasmuch as multiverse hypotheses cannot explain required fine-tuning in their own initial constants and conditions, they cannot be considered more reasonable and responsible than belief in an intelligent creator.
As noted earlier, there are many other contemporary rational approaches to God that are consistent with recent scientific discoveries, but not directly derived from them. These too may provide certitude for an intelligent creator in today’s scientific climate.
What do you say to critics who point out that you are really a philosopher talking about science, rather than a trained scientist?
Philosophy of Science is a cross section between philosophy and science. It requires familiarity with both philosophy (logic, epistemology, methodology and ontology) as well as the data and theories of science. As long as one is capable of understanding the scientific data and theories concerned with questions of ultimate causation, and correctly applying philosophical concepts and methods (particularly from epistemology and ontology) to it, the analysis and conclusions of philosophy of science should be adequately probative and capable of expanding the horizons of human knowledge. Philosophy of science can bring a strong array of analytical and synthetic tools to questions of ultimate causation, ultimate reality and “the whole of reality” because these questions are both physical and metaphysical—entailing methodological procedures from both science and philosophy. It can also help scientists avoid philosophical (epistemological and ontological) misunderstandings while helping philosophers understand the data and theories of science (avoiding potential misunderstanding).
In your view as a philosopher of science, what is the greatest need in the Catholic Church today?
I believe the most urgent need is to respond to the complementarity of faith and science—and to refute the conjecture that the two are contradictory. Unfortunately many young people believe that faith and science are contradictory, and that science is “truth,” leading them to conclude that faith must be fantasy.
If we do not explicitly show the falsity of this “popular syllogism” by appealing to sound scientific and metaphysical data and theories, we can expect to find the disturbing results of the Pew Survey continuing to increase. Recent studies indicate a loss of religious belief (signified by “nones”) among millennials at a rate of about 1 percent per year—from 24 percent “nones” to 35 percent in about 11 years. Much of this is attributable to misunderstandings about the incompatibility of faith and science.
To meet this challenge, we need to develop courses in our seminaries, training for our high school religion teachers, collaborative efforts between religion and science teachers, materials for campus ministries and collegiate courses and materials for our parishes. The Magis Center, ITEST and other institutes are trying to do this, but we need to do it at a much faster pace. It would help significantly if the U.S.C.C.B. and major religious superiors (whose Orders sponsor high schools and universities) would officially endorse such an effort. In my view, education of seminarians, high school teachers and parish youth faith formation programs is particularly urgent. To be sure, there are other very important programs and efforts needed to reverse the Pew Survey trends, but dealing with the false dichotomy between faith and science is one of the most important.
What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
My favorite passage comes from Romans 8:18-24, because it not only points to God’s mind in designing the universe and human soul, but also His heart. It gives a clue to the meaning of human suffering, and shows what God’s ultimate purpose is for creating both us and the whole universe—to be brought together to perfect fulfillment in goodness, beauty and love in Him.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved (Rom 8: 18-24).
Pope Francis has renewed the call of recent pontiffs to support a rigorous scientific curriculum in Catholic schools and seminaries. As a fellow Jesuit, what is your impression of Francis so far?
In my view, Pope Francis is one of the most intelligent, holy, inspired, savvy, grace-filled leaders in the world today. I think he is doing remarkable work in renewing the church–particularly in inspiring young people, calling the disaffected to return, recreating the church according to the heart of Christ—particularly for the poor, and concentrating on issues that may have been underemphasized in the past. His call to support a rigorous scientific curriculum is exceedingly important because it will not only help the church to establish a vision consistent with good science, but also help our young people to see that the profound expression of science and faith are complementary and mutually corroborative. As a scientist (chemist) himself, he knows well how God’s mind and heart are revealed in the intelligibility and vast beauty manifest in both the microscopic and macroscopic world.
You won the Catholic Press Association Award for best book in faith and science for your 2010 work “New Proofs for the Existence of God,” where you showed how physics today supports a deistic view of the universe even in areas like string theory and the multiverse. Looking ahead, what do you hope people will take away from your own life and work?
I have always believed in a harmonious vision of science, the liberal arts, aesthetics, spirituality and revelation that made my mind and heart soar. I believe that this harmony is truth—and that it is revealed in all the disciplines—as Blessed John Henry Newman explained in The Idea of a University. I am certain about that truth in the unrestricted mind and heart of the unconditionally loving God, and feel myself called by Sir Arthur Eddington (one of the world’s greatest physicists and astronomers) to the impelling vision of divine light:
We all know that there are regions of the human spirit untrammelled by the world of physics. In the mystic sense of the creation around us, in the expression of art, in a yearning towards God, the soul grows upward and finds the fulfillment of something implanted in its nature. The sanction for this development is within us, a striving born with our consciousness or an Inner Light proceeding from a greater power than ours. Science can scarcely question this sanction, for the pursuit of science springs from a striving which the mind is impelled to follow, aquestioning that will not be suppressed. Whether in the intellectual pursuits of science or in the mystical pursuits of the spirit, the light beckons ahead andthe purpose surging in our nature responds (Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World).
I also believe that disharmonies among science, the liberal arts, aesthetics, spirituality and revelation are destructive to the human spirit and to human culture, and so my hope for my life’s work is to contribute in what little ways I can to the overcoming of these false disharmonies. The written word—particularly books and journal articles—have enduring value, but it is also necessary to enter into every form of media, particularly popular and social media, to advance the cause of the unity of truth in the mind and heart of God, and so I will try as best I can to use all forms of media to present the unified vision of truth, love, goodness and beauty—that is, God—to a world which explicitly and implicitly seeks “the Light that beckons ahead.”
What’s your next big project?
I have just completed a Quartet entitled Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence (Ignatius Press). The first two volumes are published and the next two will come out early next year:
- Finding True Happiness: Satisfying our Restless Hearts.
- The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason.
- God So Loved the World: Clues to our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus.
- The Light Shines on in the Darkness: Contending with Suffering Through Faith.
This Quartet is not a departure from my work in faith and science, but rather an expansion of it into the unity of truth, love, goodness and beauty mentioned above. Volume II of the Quartet addresses not only the evidence for a creation from physics, but the evidence for a transcendent soul discussed above—and it finds its place within the context of happiness, suffering and the revelation of Jesus.
I started the Quartet with the discussion of happiness because I subscribe to Aristotle’s view that happiness is the one thing we can choose for itself—and that everything else is chosen for the sake of happiness. If true, then our view of “happiness” will influence every decision we make, and ultimately our purpose, fulfillment and destiny in life. I use a paradigm of Four Levels of Happiness to help people move from Level 1 and 2 Happiness (materialistic and ego-comparative happiness) to Level 3 and 4 Happiness (contributive, ethical, loving, transcendent, and faith-filled happiness). Yet if we are to help people move to transcendent happiness—which I hold to be the ultimate fulfillment of our nature, purpose, and destiny—in our contemporary scientific culture, we have to present contemporary compelling scientific, logical and metaphysical evidence to assist them in achieving reasonable and responsible belief commensurate with their standards of authenticity. This is the reason for writing the second volume on The Soul’s Upward Yearning.
The third volume—God So Loved the World—was written because of the intrinsic limits to science, philosophy, logic and metaphysics—grounded in experience and reason. Though these rational disciplines can ground reasonable and responsible belief in an intelligent Creator and a transcendent soul, they leave many questions about “the heart of God” unanswered, such as:
Is God unconditionally good and loving? Does God inspire, guide and protect us? Does God help us to move toward a heavenly kingdom? Does God redeem suffering? If so, how? Does God answer prayers? If so, how? Does He heal us interiorly? Can we be eternally separated from God? What is our path to salvation?
These questions can only be answered by God’s self-revelation, because they concern the inner workings of His heart. To explore the answer to these questions, I first justify why I believe that Jesus holds out the ultimate answer—the ultimate revelation of God (though all religions manifest the basic elements of God’s self-revelation–see Heiler 1959 in The History of Religions). I then look at Jesus’ portrayal of the unconditional love of His Father, Abba, Jesus’ own unconditional love and His path to salvation. I do this by examining His justification for claiming to be the exclusive Son of the Father, by paying particular attention to historical criteria substantiating His resurrection, miracles and gift of the Spirit.
If readers can achieve reasonable and responsible belief in Jesus’ self-revelation, I propose a response—Jesus’ response—to the problem of suffering in the fourth volume, The Light Shines On in the Darkness. This includes an answer to the question of why an unconditionally loving God would allow suffering, as well as an extensive exploration of how to suffer well in light of faith.
As I noted above, the written word is enduring, but popular and social media are indispensable vehicles for conveying to “the new media audience,” the unity of truth, goodness, love, and beauty in God. Therefore the Magis Institute is creating video series, documentaries, websites, social media shorts, Facebook posts and television programming—as well as the written word—to convey the truth, love, goodness and beauty of the mind and heart of God.
Do you have any regrets about the past?
I have had a remarkable life in the Society of Jesus and though I have some regrets about what I could have done better, I feel blessed—absolutely blessed—by God’s inspiration, guidance, protection and love with my brother Jesuits and the many friends and colleagues with whom I have I have shared a vision of Christian love.
Any final thoughts?
I think I have said enough—thanks for the opportunity.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.