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The Singing Heart of the World

12 July, 2010

feehanA scientist sets out relying on reason to seriously investigate the natural world we live in but eventually finds reason inadequate to explain the richness of the world that he investigates. The discussion here moves way beyond the Creation/Evolution debate. It brings us to where the author finds “God’s hand invisibly acting through the evolutionary process, undetectable as such by scientific intervention”. He says that the demand (for example, of creationists) that God be outside and able to intervene is inappropriate, partly because at this level of reality any distinction between outside and inside is meaningless.

But the investigation – whether it is, for example, the study of and encounter with any group of plants or animals – becomes the source of a feeling bordering on ecstasy, a sense of amazement and awe, of wonder and admiration that is overwhelming, but having as well a sense of Purpose with a capital P embracing all contingency and chance. He quotes the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, also a lepidopterist (that is, a student of moths and butterflies): ‘There is a sense of oneness with sun and stone, … ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy something else, which is hard to explain, a thrill of gratitude….’ This is the source of the title of the book: The Singing Heart of the World. The sub-title –  Creation, Evolution and Faith – indicates the scope and the areas he investigates. This is a demanding book, but immensely rewarding as we are brought to share some of the ecstasy.

John Feehan is a senior lecturer in environmental science at the School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin and lectures in the Masters course on Ecology and Religion at the Ecological Institute at Dalgan Park. He has researched and written extensively on Ireland’s environmental heritage and history, his published work including the definitive textbook on Ireland’s peatlands, as well as books on the environmental heritage and history of Slieve Bloom and County Laois. His Farming in Ireland: History Heritage and Environment has been widely acclaimed.


Chapter 1 The Nature of Science
Chapter 2 The Architecture of Creation: Cosmos
Chapter 3 The Architecture of Creation: Chemistry
Chapter 4 The Architecture of Creation: Earth
Chapter 5 The Architecture of Creation: Life
Chapter 6 The Architecture of Creation: Mind
Chapter 7 A deeper mode of scientific encounter
Chapter 8 The ground of being
Chapter 9 Human ACCLAIM: Virtue and Community

196 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online go to www.columba.ie


I had a privileged childhood, growing up close to nature, born with the sound of a river in my ears, with meadows at my doorstep in which corncrakes nested, and the untouched bog beyond where nightjars still churred on summer evenings in the 1960s. Before I was ten I had fallen in love with birds and flowers. And I had the great good fortune to encounter a teacher who encouraged my early love of botany in secondary school, in the very early years of a fifteen-year journey towards a priesthood not intended for me. Those years helped me to keep my attention on questions and concerns I might have found less time for if I had to juggle with all of the distractions and challenges most of us have to deal with at that age. They led me to Teilhard de Chardin in my late teens, and at the same time I began the study of natural science and the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan that has informed my search for meaning ever since.

The recurring theme of the book is that our beliefs, values and behaviour must be informed by reason, which is guided by the way of understanding grounded in experience that is the hallmark of modern science, which is rooted by historical accident in the ‘western tradition’. However, although that mode of knowing is fundamental, it is insufficiently attentive to the ‘information content’ of the universe of our experience, and a deeper and closer attention is indispensable if we are to articulate a response to which we may attach the label ‘religious’. The argument, therefore, is that the affirmation of faith in a supernatural ‘being’ we call God is more deeply reasonable and more true to what greater openness to the universe reveals than is its negation. I use the word ‘supernatural’ here not to mean something that is altogether beyond nature, but in the way we use it in ‘supermarket’ to mean something that is still a market, but much more: except that here we have no way of expressing infinite number of powers of ‘super’ the prefix must be raised to! More briefly I attempt to restate the argument for a ‘superpersonal’ God, and I review the outlines of the ethical imperative and social arrangements to which a rational faith points.

The central tenet of the book is that reason is not compromised by faith: that there is indeed a reciprocity between reason and faith: but it only comes into focus with a widening of the embrace of rationality on the part of reason: just as faith needs to embrace and fully incorporate the deeper appreciation of the creation our new understanding of cosmogenesis and evolution requires it to. Indeed, I believe that what is needed is nothing less than the metamorphosis of faith, using that word in the sense in which it is used to describe the radical transformation that takes place in the lives of higher insects: where the adult may appear totally different in form from the larval stage, yet is essentially the same, and the latter is preparation for the former. But perhaps indeed a comparable metamorphosis is required of science …

I hope that my absolute commitment to unconditional human understanding, based on the totality of human experience, will be clear on every page of what follows. My criticism of ‘science’ is simply that it is not scientific enough in the sense that it does not embrace the totality of experience, only those dimensions that can be measured and quantified. On the other hand, my critique of faith is that its embrace of scientific understanding is, to varying degrees, selective.

No doubt it would take as many volumes as the Summa Theologiae to do justice to any of this, and I do not have the conceptual or linguistic brilliance required for this: but when all is said and done, what matters is to try to convey the notion that what and who, for want of any better word, we call God is real, even if the prism of our physical reality can only see the colours which the refractive medium of our human crystal allows.

Ribes sanguineum, the flowering currant,
her back to the limestone wall and
silent all winter, bursts
into song in March, all bells and cymbals,
wind chimes and tinkle triangles,
calling the early bees to feast.

I expect you think
I have mixed my metaphors again:
as if carefully sorted figures of speech
and balanced syntax could get it right,
could frame the melody the flowering currant sang
with the morning light and the March wind
and the harkening Andrena

And now I know
the answer to what we asked
each other often is where the currant sings
and swings its bells in the morning light,
never to be contained and held
in word. It does not need our words, it will
vanish with our attempts to name
its song.

Which is why
poetry succeeds, looking sideways
at the singing heart of the world.

John Feehan, By the Grace of God, 14



I say, therefore, that one science is the mistress of the others,
namely, theology, to which the remaining sciences are vitally
necessary and without which [theology] cannot reach its end.
Francis Bacon, Opus Majus, Part 2, Chapter I

For many people science is synonymous with brainy people in white coats discovering and inventing things in laboratories with incomprehensibly complex equipment. It is the application of these discoveries through technology that underpins our modern comfortable way of life. Almost nothing we do is untouched by its all-pervading influence. On the other hand, of course, ‘science’ is responsible for many of the great problems and dilemmas of our age. It is technology that has given us the weaponry that makes modern warfare so devastating; on the other hand, medical technology has given us control over disease, enabling the human population to reach proportions that now threaten the life support systems of the planet with its impact. It is a scenario that many find daunting and intimidating. And when we are told that most scientists don’t believe in God, it can give rise to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in those who do profess faith.

The stupendous achievement that is modern science stands at the end of a long history (1). The incomprehensible equipment we observe at CERN or in the laboratory has a history and can be traced back to simple beginnings that over the centuries have developed and become ever more elaborated and complex. The gargantuan enterprise that is modern science is a cumulative enterprise built over centuries, each generation building on the insight and achievement of those who have gone before. But the essential mode of enquiry that underpins the scientific endeavour has not changed in all that time. To see what this is, let us strip away the accumulated paraphernalia of the laboratory and look at an early example of science at work.

The man who measured the size of the earth with a stick: Eratosthenes and Alexandria
The capacity to interrogate nature in this way, and come to understand how it works, is part of human intelligence, of what distinguishes us from other creatures (though in a broader sense, of course, all creatures are intelligent). It is at work in all of us. Only very recently has it crystallised out as a distinct and separate method of enquiry. A good example of the scientific mode of investigation is provided by Eratosthenes (276-194 BC), the man who measured the earth’s circumference with nothing more than a ruler – and his brain. Eratosthenes lived and worked in 3rd century BC Alexandria (where he was director of the great library). He made several notable contributions in mathematics and physics (he was a close friend of the more famous Archimedes), but is best remembered for his  calculation of the earth’s circumference. Alexandria was the greatest city the western world had until that time ever seen, and its greatest marvel was the library there and its associated museum. It flourished for 700 years, and was the centre to which much of the genius of the age gravitated. In addition to Eratosthenes himself, there were men such as Hipparchus, Euclid, Dionysius of Thrace, Herophilus, Heron of Alexandria, Apollonius of Perga, Ptolemy and Archimedes, and at the very end the great woman mathematician and astronomer, Hypatia. The library could have contained up to half a million books, each a handwritten papyrus scroll. Only a small fraction of its titles survive.

Eratosthenes read in one of the books in his library that, at the southern frontier post of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile and 800km south of Alexandria and situated exactly on the Tropic of Cancer, vertical columns or upright posts cast no shadow at noon on the longest day of the year: the summer solstice on 21 June. On that day the sun shone vertically down the deepest well shaft. The sun, in other words, was directly overhead. But in Alexandria on that day the sun did cast a shadow at noon. Eratosthenes reasoned that this could not happen if the earth were flat. The sun is effectively an infinite distance away, at least so far away in practice that by the time its rays reach the earth they are parallel. If the earth were flat the sun should shine directly down the wells both at Alexandria and Syene when the sun is directly overhead. When it is not directly overhead, the sun should cast shadows of equal length at both places. The only rational explanation, Eratosthenes reasoned, is that the surface of the earth is curved. Moreover, the angle the sun makes with a vertical rod at Alexandria, when it is directly overhead at Syene, must be equal to the angle an extension of that rod to the centre of the earth makes with a continuation to the centre of the earth of a vertical rod at Syene (7 degrees). Knowing the horizontal distance between Alexandria and Syene (he hired a man to pace it out for him) only the simplest of geometry is required to determine that the circumference of the earth must be 40,000km (800km x 50 – 7 degrees is about a fiftieth of a full circle). This is the correct answer, which the most accurate modern calculations show to be out by no more than a few percent (the modern estimate is 40,076km).

What we see here is the exercise of observation, intelligence, deduction, experiment: the things which in time come to weave the way of seeing we call science. Eratosthenes observed certain enigmatic features of the world in which he lived. At noon on the summer solstice a vertical pole at Syene casts a shadow but not at Alexandria. How is this to be explained? His mind then goes to work, assembling and sorting other relevant information before everything clicks into place and a hypothesis is formulated in terms of the observable already ‘known’ laws of nature. Because this is so, predictions can be made on the basis of the hypothesis, experiments can be devised and carried out to test them, and if it survives these it will be elevated to the status of a theory. If it fails a single test its validity is in question: it will need to be refined, and in some cases discarded.

The most important thing to notice, from our point of view, is the way Eratosthenes looks at the evidence presented to his senses, asks questions about what is going on, and uses his intelligence to arrive at an explanation that is consistent with the evidence: formulating in the process a hypothesis about how things actually work. Sometimes the tools used to facilitate that process will need to be more complicated than Eratosthenes’ gnomon (2) (how long a journey lies between that and the particle accelerator at CERN!): and the hypothesis arrived at will always need to be substantiated by further experiments, carefully formulated in such as way that they will put it to the test. If it survives this process of testing, then it can be considered a theory of how this particular aspect of reality works. That is the second key element in science: it tells us how the world actually works: it corresponds with reality, the real world. It reaches its conclusions and bases its predictions on the actual evidence before our senses, never on hearsay or speculation, presumption or tradition. Notice, too, the way mathematics is used to give measured precision to the explanation of what is going on.

There you have the scientific mode of enquiry laid bare, without its modern bells and trimmings and all the investigative paraphernalia it has acquired over the centuries. It is nothing more or less than the use of the human mind, unfettered by opinion or tradition, to uncover secret by slow secret, cumulatively over time, the workings of the world. It increases our wonder and delight at how amazing and beautiful and intelligent the world is — and the universe of which it is part. It is not primarily concerned with whether this knowledge is useful, whether we can turn our gaze inwards and ask how can we use this understanding to improve human life, my life.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)
The early progress of this mode of enquiry was very slow and — as a professional enterprise — confined to one corner of the world. It is essentially a mode of enquiry whose aim is to understand the world. As such it is something we are all capable of when we put our minds to work; and as such it has always been used by people to shape the material and cultural fabric of human society — but not in the dedicated and deliberate fashion of what is often described as the Ionian Awakening in ancient Greece. Aristotle is generally thought of as the father of modern science. At the heart of everything his enquiring mind probed is the axiom that it is from the appearances — the evidence — that we must start in our search for knowledge (3).  In spite of his brilliance, Aristotle’s achievement was limited by the fact that he was the first to look scientifically at most of the subjects he investigated. Basic concepts such as mass, velocity, temperature and force had not as yet been clarified, and it would be 1800 years before the key notion of applying mathematics to quantify observations in physics would be developed, and the experimental apparatus needed to measure time and temperature accurately had not been invented. He also had a tendency to elevate provisional hypotheses based on the limited observations he could carry out to the status of Laws of the Universe. One such was his geocentric cosmology — the idea that the earth is at the centre of the universe — which remained the dominant view until the 16th century, when it was shown to be a wrong interpretation of limited evidence. Aristotle’s logic is still, however, an essential foundation for clear thinking.

What is science?
Science, then, is the unending quest to understand the world about us, and the wider universe of which it is a tiny part. It has however come to be more particularly identified with seeking to understand how it works, and to apply that understanding for the betterment of human life. It sets out to discover what the observable world is telling us about itself. It takes the evidence that it presents to our senses, and asks: what is going on here? — and again, in the more particular sense just referred to, how is this being done: how does it work? The question is directed at one facet of reality at a time, and so the scientific enterprise is broken, like the ray of light passing through a glass prism, into a multiplicity of disciplines, each with its endless array of questions. It is also progressive: it evolves over time, the achievement of any one generation building upon the accumulated knowledge of those who have gone before. In the beginning, the evidence is gathered directly by our senses, but our growing understanding enables us to construct extensions to our senses, so that we can see further and deeper: the most familiar such extensions being the telescope and the microscope.

The insistence on proof via experiment is one of the foundations of science: you establish a hypothesis on the basis of the information to hand, and then you devise an experiment or series of experiments to test it (which often requires great ingenuity in itself), and if it survives the test, you formulate a theory: which still leaves an open mind as to what the future may reveal.

Science has proved its ability to explain the workings of reality. What we are more concerned with here, however, are the implications for the meaning of reality. Science has problems with religion because of religion’s insistence on revealed truth: a ‘revelation’ other than the creation that is. Science considers itself to be more founded, grounded, than revelation in this sense: it believes that it provides the only secure foundation for human understanding and behaviour.

The rebirth of scientific enquiry
‘Science’ as we define it today is a relatively recent development in human history. People have always asked questions of the world about them, but in the beginning and for a long time, although the outline of an answer was always suggested by the evidence, that outline might then be elaborated in explanations that the evidence did not support. It is worth remembering, what the root of that critical word ‘evidence’ is: that which is before our eyes, that which our senses confront. We can perhaps trace the formal beginning of the intellectual journey that became the highway of science today in a famous statement of Aristotle: ‘The faculty of thinking thinks the forms in the images’ — but the images must come first.

In 415 AD the library of Alexandria was destroyed by a Christian mob with the blessing of Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria (later Saint Cyril). With its destruction the accumulated wisdom enshrined there was virtually obliterated. Not a single scroll remains today. Hypatia herself was dragged from her chariot, stripped of her clothes and flayed alive with abalone shells in the name of Christ. Then her body was burned. What happened at Alexandria is a lesson for our times of the capacity of religion that has broken with reason to destroy our advance towards a more mature understanding of divinity and of our place in the scheme of things. In its shadow we must pause and consider before we cast the first Christian stone at contemporary and comparable Muslim fanaticism (4).

The destruction of the Alexandrian archive smothered the small flame of scientific knowledge that had grown from the Ionian awakening, and heralded a descent into a dark age: not in the sense we usually use the term to denote the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, but because the mode of enquiry that is science was suppressed by early Christianity. The accumulated knowledge of eight centuries was irrevocably lost, and it would be another eight centuries before the process of recovery began.

The rediscovery of the scientific approach owed much to the enquiries of medieval Islamic scholars who rediscovered the works of Aristotle, and it was through these intermediaries — very notable thinkers in themselves — that the thinking of Aristotle reached the Christian west. In the early 13th century Thomas Aquinas made the thinking of Aristotle his own and wove it into an intellectually mesmerising tapestry — but it was a tapestry with a woof as well as a warp: the woof of scientific knowing was crossed with the warp of revealed knowledge (5). Scholasticism, however, froze the God-centred Aristotelianism of Thomas in its 13th century clothing; in the centuries that followed no serious attempt was made to review it in light of the advance of scientific knowledge, with the result that knots of contradiction inevitably developed, leading to the rejection of the entire tapestry by the scientific mind. Eventually in the west, science and religion went their separate ways. In Islam, where life is still seen more as all of a piece, the revealed truth of The Book holds absolute sway. And it may be argued that institutional Christianity made a radical mistake in its failure to interpret revelation with a more mature understanding that would have prevented the Great Split.

The way of thinking that characterises science in its modern form had its origins in the 16th century. It was something that developed slowly and gradually, involving countless people, each adding an increment, each building on what had been discovered before. One of the most significant early figures was the Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214-1294) (6). Roger Bacon’s most lasting contribution was his insistence that creation operated through natural causes that could be elucidated from careful scrutiny of the evidence before us — experiment in other words. But in spite of his emphasis on the central importance of experiment to prove if an idea were true, if it corresponded to what happened in reality, Bacon did little experimenting himself. His mind was endlessly at work coming up with ingenious ideas about how things worked, especially to do with light (most of them false it has to be said). This is partly because it was difficult technically at this time to set up experiments: and it shows how painfully cumulative and stepwise was the accumulation of truth about reality.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
The two great names associated with the development of scientific thinking as we recognise it today are Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. Galileo’s great contribution was his emphasis on experimental proof. Hearsay or instinct were insufficient, they can mislead. It never occurred to people to seek experimental proof — you could reason everything out, as if it were a theorem in mathematics. His most famous experiments concerned gravity. He demonstrated that — contrary to instinct and common sense — heavy and light objects fall at the same rate. We have all read about the famous experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa which demonstrates another very important aspect of the experimental method: repeatability (actually it wasn’t Galileo who conducted it but one of his opponents, in order to prove him wrong). The most striking repetition of the Pisa experiment was carried out by astronauts on the moon when they dropped a hammer and a feather, and before our still astonished eyes they fell to the ground at the same time. Dropping weights from leaning towers was one thing. In a rather different league as far as the church authorities of the day were concerned was Galileo’s enthusiastic embrace and further elaboration of Copernicus’ new model of a heliocentric universe — with the sun rather than the earth at the centre — which led to one of the first great clashes between science and religion. Such a notion seemed to threaten God’s role in the scheme of things and led to Galileo’s arrest and confinement (7).

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Newton too was a great experimenter, but his greater contribution was to demonstrate that the behaviour of things is governed by laws that are literally universal: they apply everywhere, not just on earth, but out there in the universe, governing the stars as well as our cars — and at all times, not just today. Most famously he realised that the pull of gravity which makes an apple fall is the same force that keeps the moon in orbit, or the earth in orbit around the sun. And it applies to the stars themselves. The universe is governed not by capricious gods; it runs in accordance with predetermined, inviolable laws — laws that can be discovered if we are smart and skilful enough to design and carry out the right experiments to find out what they are. And that is the science of physics in a nutshell: the search for universal laws that can be discovered by carrying out a succession of ever more subtle and ingenious experiments.

One of Newton’s most important contributions was his discovery of inertia: ‘Any object will keep moving in a straight line at constant speed (or will stay still) unless it is pushed or pulled by a force.’ This is Newton’s first law of motion. It isn’t obvious. Galileo thought circular motion was the natural way for objects to behave — look at the moon, the planets. Reality is not always what it appears to be. An impressive demonstration of inertia took place in 1640 when Pierre Gassendi took a slave galley out into the Mediterranean, rowed flat out, then climbed to the top of the mast and dropped a series of balls that fell straight down relative to the ship because they were moving at thesame speed as the ship.

1. An excellent account of the history and progress of science will b found in John Gribbin’s Science, A History 1543-2001 (Penguin Books 2003).
2. The ‘proper’ name for the rod of a sundial: Eratosthenes’ stick in other words!
3. Aristotle, De Anima III, 7.
4. The story of Alexandria is beautifully summarised in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (Ballintyne Books, 1985), pp 12-21 and 333-337, 370-415; see also Michael Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr) (Prometheus Books, 2007).
5. Aquinas. Selected Philosophical Writings, selected by Timothy McDermott, (Oxford University Press, 1993).
6. Brian Clegg, The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon (Constable an Robinson, 2003); James Blish, Doctor Mirabilis (Arrow, 1976).
7. See Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (Dove Publications, 1995).

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