In 1986 Peter Gabriel came out with a popular song called. “In Your Eyes.” In the song, he was articulating that within the physical, human eye lies great depth and meaning. In short, the song communicated that the eye expresses love. As the song goes, “In your eyes, the light the heat, in your eyes, I am complete, in your eyes. I see the doorway to a thousand churches.” Here, Peter Gabriel sees the sacred mystery beyond the ordinary description of one’s eyes. It would be nonsensical to create a song that merely views the eye at the biological. Such a song might go something like this, “In your eyes, the cornea, in your eyes, the retina, in your eyes I see the lines of a thousand bloodshot blood vessels.” Such a song would not provoke meaning, insight, or any interest outside an optometrist convention.
Human nature is drawn to things that lie outside the material realm. Embedded in the human mind people continue to search for meaning to pressing questions of existence and ultimate purpose. Moreover, human experience continuously craves meaning in the arts. This avenue into areas beyond the physical is what metaphysics does. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality by honing in on the connection of the mind (immaterial) and matter (material). However, there exists a coordinated effort to cut off the “mind” portion and limit all phenomenon only through the physical vantage point. Here, one views all experiences only by natural means while anything outside a material lens is dubbed as superstitious and casually kicked to the curb.
This “matter only” mantra happens most frequently in atheists circles. Atheists fancy themselves as champions of reason yet fail to fully reason where their data leads to and where it comes from. Bill Nye, the famous scientist stated, “The earth is just a speck of sand in the universe.” Pressing this “matter only” doctrine further, an atheist recently tweeted the following, “The earth we live on is just a giant magnet that absorbs energy from the sun and converts that energy into temporary biological life forms. Life forms including the human species are just biological manifestations of energy expressing itself in an infinite array of biology.”
I want to focus on the repeated word “just.” A typical phrase of the atheist goes something like this, “The earth is just X.” “Life forms are just X.” What is the work that the word “just” is doing here? By injecting the word “just” the person is assuming the thing he wants to prove. No one denies that the earth is a giant magnet. No one denies that life forms express themselves in energy, but the question remains – is that all they are? By imploring the word “just” over and over, atheists (and society at large) are reading a phenomenon solely through the lens of a materialistic perspective. It’s like Peter Gabriel’s song on the eye tunneled only through an optometrist exam.
Now, do there exist descriptions of reality that can explain a cause beyond the mere material explanation? Yes, and human experience is drenched in such non-scientific accounts in our everyday conversations.
For example, if I were to put a pot of water on the stove, turn on the heat, and witness boiling water a scientist can come along and say, “That’s just the molecules of water being agitated by the heat.” Yes, it is that but not “just” that. There is indeed more going on in this scene. In fact, the deeper description of reality is the statement – “Tony is making a pot of tea.” Notice the description of “Tony making a pot of tea” invokes purpose. This explanation adds abundantly more to the account than the scientific narrative can do justice to. It’s not just about the molecules it is also about Tony having a cup of tea. And knowing the meaning of what is going on, the story now becomes more intriguing.
Has there always been a chasm between matter and the meaning the matter points to? No. Aristotle and all the great thinkers that followed him conjoined matter and mind in metaphysics together. Aristotelian philosophy firmly planted science and religion as complementary components in understanding ultimate reality.
Aristotle taught that all effects had four causes. With any effect, you can point to these four causes – material, efficient, formal, and final causes. For example, the existence of my house is an effect. My house is a product of efficient causation – meaning there had to be builders who were hammering, sawing, welding, etc. But efficient causes need raw materials out of which that house was built into an intelligible structure. The raw materials from which my house was built are called the material cause. These would include such materials as wood, brick, mortar, drywall, etc. But how does the material cause undergo a change to where it looks like this intelligible structure that I am living in? Here, we move into efficient causation – building by craftsmen who use another cause. Builders don’t just randomly grab things and build without a plan. They are using a formal blueprint in the mind of the master builder. The builders have to know what the intelligible structure of the home will be in their minds. This is the formal cause. Using the formal cause in the mind of the master builder the craftsmen hammer, construct, and shape the home to match the architect’s design. And the effect is having the house the way it looks now. The final cause is referencing a thing’s end. Here, the level of excellence of the house is determined. Is it a dilapidated house or does its structure reveal a home built for good living where one thrives? If the house is teleologically structured and sound to live in we can say it is a quality house thanks to the expression of the final cause. The goal in the final cause is to have the means and end conform with each other.
This Aristotle principle was the basis for Western civilization and structured the sciences as such. As Thomas Aquinas commented on this model, “For this reason it is necessary that such a consideration of both the whole [formal and final cause] and its parts [material and efficient cause] should belong to the same science.” Carrying Aristotle’s model, Aquinas expressed that science must live and breathe the combination of material and immaterial in which the formal and final causes play a prominent role in describing reality.
Notice that formal and final causes invoke a higher authority that goes beyond the material. Thomas Aquinas explained that formal and final causes illuminate God’s work in creation. The formal cause is in the mind of the grand designer – God, and final cause points to the designer’s purpose for that thing. Aquinas applied these two causes as they relate to human interaction with God. With formal cause one thinks of God’s will and with final cause one seeks to answer – does your actions correspond to God’s will?
Aquinas called the purpose of a thing its “end” and asserted that knowing the end will align one to God’s moral law. As Aquinas wrote, “It is proper to moral philosophy to consider human operations insofar as they are ordered to one another and to an end.”
Therefore, formal and final cause shaped how man reasoned in his effort to contemplate God and to live out God’s plan. However, in the seventeenth-century, philosophers Renee Descartes and Francis Beacon started to doubt this Aristotelian-Aquinas philosophy and eventually gutted it. The Age of Enlightenment during the French Revolution was an attempt to ransack any metaphysics that might point to God and only focus on those two human-centered causes. Consequently, Enlightenment philosophers removed the two metaphysical causes (formal and final cause). Why? Because these are the causes that are more invisible to the eye of the materialist. These are the causes that suggest God. Therefore, keeping with the spirit of the French Revolution to undermine the authority of the Church and rebel against God, Enlightenment philosophers jumped at the chance to remove theology from the sciences and chucked out the formal and final cause.
Of course, the formal and final causes are the deeper, more profound of the causes. Yet, the Enlightenment philosopher’s confiscation of these important causes forced academics to only do science with “just” the material and efficient cause.
By severing the formal and final causes many today now suffer from the cult of scientism (or materialism) in which one can only comment on a thing’s cause that is observable by the human senses. In enters the repeated “the universe is just X” statements. Or, the tired phrase, “A fetus is just a clump of cells.” Gone is any account that goes beyond matter. Descartes and Beacon had us believe that final or formal causation is an illusion. Here, they say there are not really forms that give structure to being. There is no intelligible teleology or goal or purpose of the universe. Ironically, the Enlightenment philosophers were using meaning to tell us not to use meaning when they articulated what can or can’t be known by human reason.
This movement of modern science implies that man cannot figure out the pressing “why” questions. Only dealing with the material and efficient causes modern science solves the lower half of the problem but is awkwardly silent on the bigger issue of purpose and end. In this sense, science abruptly stops an ardent seeker from pursuing those vital questions that lay outside the material box.
Theology looks at the universe from Aristotelian grounds and had done so for nineteen centuries. Here, theology seeks to reject the Enlightenment removal of purpose lest one eliminates God and thus turns into a materialist. Yet, because materialism has persisted, people look at religion through the lens of a material worldview and thus see a “contradiction” between religion and science when the real contradiction is materialism removed from metaphysics.
When we reduce the mystery of human exploration to the mere biological we amputate meaning, purpose, and God’s overall design.
To do science without formal cause one cannot make an assessment of a thing’s essence or its purpose. Essentially, we say who cares about the chariness of the chair and using a chair for its end. This inevitably leads to anything being used however our flawed passions deem fit. Here, true meaning of a person or a thing becomes lost in a sea of confused emotions. And without meaning, one becomes sucked into a dark abyss.
As Fr. Swan noted, “There is broad agreement that a lack of meaning in human lives creates a crisis of identity and purpose.” This point was powerfully argued by Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, where he observed that those who had the greatest chance to survive the horrors of Auschwitz were those who could find meaning in their suffering. As Frankl puts it: “The person who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
For many contemporary atheists, there is no God and therefore no meaning to anything. All that exists are material substances. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote: “Here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.” Similarly, the English scientist Richard Dawkins asserted, “The universe has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
As many people wander away from religious faith and a biblical worldview, this predictably leads to a loss of a sense of meaning and a drift towards the grim conclusions of atheists. And when this happens, our sense of purpose in life, our reason to live, and even our mental health can be crushed. According to psychiatrist Andrew Simms: “Profound suffering in the lives of many with mental illness is caused by a feeling of meaninglessness . . . Lack or loss of meaning in life is probably the most frequent spiritual symptom voiced by our patients. It may be symptomatic of depression, but depression may also be symptomatic of a vacuum in the soul.” (Is Faith Delusion?: Why Religion is Good for your Health).
Even atheists innately know that the material and efficient causes don’t represent the full picture of reality. Their own language reveals this, “Life forms are biological manifestations of energy expressing itself.” Now, do inanimate objects “express” themselves? No, this actually sounds like a human, purposeful way of thinking. What happens is when atheists deny purpose to God they end up infusing that meaning into inanimate objects. But the purpose is not directly in the object. The purpose is in what the object was made for (formal cause).
Besides eliminating meaning, and creating an illusion of a battle between science and religion other bleed-over effects from the Enlightenment continue.
Chris Hazell writes how the problem of indifference has seeped into our world. With indifference, we recall a sobering passage from the Book of Revelation in which there is an indictment of those who stand detached, lukewarm, disengaged, and disinterested in the faith (see Rev. 3:15-16).
An even more pressing outcome from the Enlightenment is we essentially threw out the ways of the spiritual life and completely miss how it interacts with the physical world. In Catholic theology the physical points to the deeper non-physical reality embedded in God’s sacramental attributes of form and matter. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “When we abandon the real supernatural, we are left with the unnatural.” If we just focus on science and technology we’ll become hypnotized to the point where we act as if nothing exists beyond matter. Here, we become deaf and blind to the things of God.
When the transcendent is split, isolated and removed, the human person and his energies become dark. Respect for human beings degrade into a moral nightmare. Cardinal Sarah comments on this point: “The loss of the sense of God’s grandeur is a dreadful regression towards savagery. The sense of the sacred is indeed the heart of all human civilization. . . . . Man’s dignity is an echo of God’s transcendence for man is made in God’s image and likeness. But if we no longer tremble with a joyful, reverential fear before the greatness of God, how could man be for us a mystery worthy of respect? He no longer has this divine nobility. He becomes a piece of merchandise, a laboratory specimen. Without the sense of the adoration of God, human relations become tinged with vulgarity and aggressiveness.”
Catholicism has long argued that faith and reason is a package deal (see CCC 36, 501956). Pope John Paul II articulated, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth.” Yet, despite centuries of faith and reason working in harmony, the goal of the Enlightenment was to create a split of faith and reason where they separate into two competing camps. When faith is removed from reason both become subjective to the intoxicated passions of the flesh. Here, the truth is obscured. In the absence of light, everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil. Hence, the road to our destination is lost from other roads that take us in an endless circle.
In his other writings, Aristotle taught that men make revolutions primarily based on private motives. The French Revolution and the parallel revolts today is an outward manifestation of a disdain for God. In the French Revolution, emotionally-fueled angry mobs performed acts of violence in which they toppled religious statues, churches, and anything in their history that represented God. Interestingly, we saw similar actions being played out in the streets of America this past year. The removal of God from science, indeed from the public sphere is the ugly by-product of the French Revolution. Today, the spiritual life slides over people’s souls without managing to penetrate the materialist shield built by the Enlightenment.
Just recently Cardinal Burke advised how the Enlightenment caused a gaping hole in God’s creation.
“It was during the Enlightenment and centuries afterward that there was an exaltation of man and forgetting of God as Creator, Who defines human nature and all things. This has grown such that man presumes to define life and marriage as a rejection of the love of a husband and wife. It would prohibit the worship of God while forcing people to accept acts that are utterly contrary to moral law. This is a crisis in secular culture, but the Church is in the world and is in danger of allowing the entry of secularism into itself.”
Yes, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution caused a tsunami of carnage in the faith and more broadly into the human psyche. Yet despite the damage, God’s light of reason continuously breaks into the soul. We instinctively know Peter Gabriel’s song about an eye has more depth than a mere scientific textbook. The eye reveals something more. Charles Darwin had to grapple how the complexity of the eye could randomly evolve into this incredibly intricate organ that gives us color assessment, depth perception, and sensory input. God’s wisdom in creation keeps speaking to us. We just need to keep listening to Him.
When faith and reason unite meaning and purpose is restored.