National Catholic Register

Commentary

The Wisdom of the Mind

The Wisdom of the Mind

BY DONALD DEMARCO

June 1-7, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/27/08 at 6:39 PM

 
According to Plato, wisdom is the communion of the soul with reality. By this he meant that wisdom gives us both a broad and reliable understanding of reality.

At the opposite end of the spectrum for ancient Greek thinkers is Narcissus who saw nothing more than his own image as it was reflected in a mountain pool.

The perspective of Narcissus was so narrow that he had no other knowledge by which he could realistically evaluate this image. He mistakenly believed it belonged to another.

Plato was wise, Narcissus was foolish.

This dramatic contrast between the breadth of wisdom and the narrowness of foolishness has been strikingly exemplified in today’s society by two events that took place over the course of the first three months of 2008. The first involves the 67 academics who protested the visit that Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to make at their school, one founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII and known to the world, ironically, as La Sapienza (the Latin word for “wisdom”).

The reason for the protest reflected the narrow belief expressed by the protesters that science does not need nor has ever had any need for religion.

The second involves the 2008 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize, Father Michael Heller, who is a world-class scientist and a Catholic priest. His curriculum vitae includes being a visiting professor at the Institute of Astrophysics and Geophysics at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and at the Physics and Astronomy Department of Leicester University in Britain. According to the reverend doctor, the expression, “theology of science” is perfectly defensible.

A passage in the Book of Wisdom (7:15-21) offers a frame of mind that is most conducive to the development of science:

“May God grant me to speak as he would wish and express thoughts worthy of his gifts, since he himself is the guide of Wisdom, since he directs the sages. We are indeed in his hand, we ourselves and our words, with all our understanding, too, and technical knowledge. It was he who gave me true knowledge of all that is, who taught me the structure of the world and the properties of the elements, the beginning, end and middle of the times, the alternation of the solstices and the succession of the seasons, the revolution of the year and the positions of the stars, the natures of animals and the instincts of wild beasts, the powers of spirits and the mental processes of men, the varieties of plants and the medical properties of roots. All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know, instructed by Wisdom who designed them all.”

This passage represents the synthesis between science and theology, knowledge of creation and recognition of the Creator. It also carries the implication that it belongs to wisdom to perceive the realism of this synthesis. The ancient Greeks held that the microcosm (mind of man) was the tablet upon which the macrocosm (universe) registered its intelligible imprint.

The fact that the human mind is designed to know reality (the way a radio is designed to receive particular radio frequencies) is addressed by St. Thomas Aquinas. The Angelic Doctor explains that reality is situated between two intellects (Res ergo naturalis inter duos intellectus constituta), God’s and man’s. The natural law, from the human point of view, is simply a reflection of the eternal law, from God’s point of view.

By removing God from the equation, there can be no satisfactory explanation as to how the human mind had come to be attuned to reality so that it can mirror its order and intelligibility.

This remarkable correspondence could not happen by chance. Albert Einstein once commented that for him, the most incomprehensible thing of all is that the universe is comprehensible.

The implication of his remark should be evident. How did it happen that the mind of man and the intelligibility of the universe became matched up with each other? Does it not seem that this matching was orchestrated, perhaps even pre-established by God?

Einstein hinted at the answer to this question when commented, and rather famously, that God does not play dice with the world (Gott würfelt nicht).

The well-known cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead had a surprising and yet illuminating experience when she was studying the life and habits of Canadian Eskimos in the far north.

She happened to bring with her two copies of one of her books. The Eskimos were utterly flabbergasted when they encountered for the first time in their lives, two things that were absolutely identical.

To the Eskimos, no two faces, personalities, sunsets or ice floes were ever the same. Being human, and therefore philosophically curious, they knew that there must be a third thing that explained how two separate objects could be utterly identical in appearance, page for page, word for word, letter for letter. Not having ever seen a printing press, they could only wonder what that third thing might be. But they knew, instinctively, that there must be a third thing.

Wisdom allows us to grasp that third factor. It offers a breadth of knowledge that science alone cannot provide. Moreover, as Plato indicated, our soul is made for wisdom.

Specialization and agnosticism cannot bring joy or fulfillment to the human soul. In the address that La Sapienza did not allow Pope Benedict to deliver, the Holy Father made an allusion to St. Augustine who observed that knowledge alone (scientia) inevitably led to sadness (tristitia).

A university, Benedict reasoned, should be open not only to knowledge of the truth, but also to the good that truth contains. In other words, had La Sapienza allowed him to speak, they would have heard him urge them to be wise.

When Galileo declared that the “book of nature” is written in the language of mathematics, he was implying that someone (God) must have written the book in the first place. His colleague, Johannes Kepler, who formulated the three great laws of astronomy, was exemplifying the same wisdom of the mind when he proclaimed, “My thoughts are following thy thoughts.”

In addition Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics, echoed the same wisdom in reminding his fellow scientists that the laws of induction in logic cannot be established inductively, and advised them to take seriously the notion that “science is a way of life that can flourish only when men are free to have faith.”

Sir William Henry Bragg, together with his son, William Lawrence Bragg, won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1915. Sir William was displaying considerable wisdom when he once remarked that “religion and science are indeed opposed to each other, but as the thumb and forefinger are opposed, so together they can grasp.”

The Old and New Testaments, in a variety of ways, provide man with a basis and an encouragement to cultivate wisdom of the mind. The notion that God’s creation is ordered means that the physical universe is organized in a rational manner that is consistent, unified and free of contradiction.

The notion that man is created in God’s image gives him the confidence that he is capable of discovering the orderly pattern of nature.

Since every thing that God created is good, it is worthwhile to uncover and utilize the good wherever man finds it.

The Commandment to love is a powerful incentive to utilize what one has discovered and developed for the practical benefit of others.

The notion of the Incarnation means that the Word becomes flesh, the eternal dwells in the temporal, the divine is wedded to the human.

Wisdom is needed in order to grasp these various syntheses. Wisdom is the communion of the soul with reality, recognizing how the supernatural interpenetrates the natural.

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary

in Cromwell, Connecticut.