Thomistic Institute Unveils New ‘Aquinas 101’ Video Series
The director of the institute, Dominican Father Dominic Legge, discusses the series, which explores the compatibility of science and faith.
The Thomistic Institute will release a new video series, “Aquinas 101: Science and Faith”, Tuesday, which will explore the compatibility of modern science and the Catholic faith. It will address questions that have arisen about how scientific advances fit in with faith, asking questions like “has modern science made faith in God impossible?” and “does belief in miracles and traditional dogmas require us to deny scientific evidence, or abandon the scientific method?” The series comes after the Thomistic Institute’s fall 2019 launch of their Aquinas 101 series, a free course of short videos that introduce the viewer to St. Thomas Aquinas’s system of thought.
Dominican Father Dominic Legge, the director of the Thomistic Institute which is based out of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C, told the Register how the series came about, what questions it will explore, and how theologians and scientific experts worked together to make these topics accessible.
How did you design this series?
The Thomistic Institute has for years held ongoing, high-level conversations and academic conferences between Dominican theologians and philosophers and high level scientists. (In fact, some of the Dominican priests are also high level scientists.) One of the fruits of those conversations was the realization that there is a need for a sustained intellectual project to work through some of these questions in the light of the principles that you get from St. Thomas Aquinas. We are convinced that these are perennial principles, that they give the mind real traction in grasping the truth of reality around us and the Supreme reality, who is God.
In the fall of 2019, we launched a free video series called Aquinas 101. It has over 100 short video lessons (animated videos, with supplemental readings and the opportunity to ask questions of a Dominican friar) explaining the thought of Thomas Aquinas to people who want to approach him for the first time. That has been successful far beyond our expectations.
In light of the work we were already doing with the scientists and the success we’d had with Aquinas 101, we thought this would be a perfect way to join those two projects. Through this new video series, we’re hoping to make accessible some of the ongoing work that we are doing to address these questions at the intersection of science and faith.
Concretely speaking, to prepare the series, we gathered a working group of scientists and philosophers and theologians, and then we identified a list of hot topic questions that we knew people would want to answer. We came up with a list of the subjects we would need to treat if we were going to answer those questions. For example, how does the scientific method gives us knowledge compared with how philosophy gives us knowledge? How do faith and divine revelation give us knowledge? We also wanted to treat questions about evolution and creation, divine providence, the human soul, human freedom, the classic reflections from St. Thomas on causality and form, on chance and determinacy, on miracles and creation.
What are some of the prevalent misconceptions today about the relationship of faith and science?
Some people think that science has positively disproven the faith or has debunked the Bible. Implicit in that is an assumption about how we come to know things. Some might assume that only what science proves counts as true knowledge. That’s a very questionable assumption, which is not warranted by the scientific method. If you followed it strictly, you would radically constrict the knowledge that we have, including on some very important questions. So, for example, whether my family loves me is not a question that science can answer. Science can build a nuclear weapon, but it can’t answer whether it’s moral to use it.
There are also lots of particular questions where science has made great progress, and that might seem to undermine traditional Christian beliefs. For example, the development of the theory of evolution has prompted some people to question whether God created the world (and specifically human beings), and also to raise questions about our first parents and the doctrine of original sin.
Quantum mechanics has prompted some people to question whether traditional philosophical ideas like the principle of non-contradiction (that something cannot be both true and false at the same time) still hold. Discoveries in neuroscience have caused people to question whether humans are really free, and even whether we really have a soul. There are many more questions beyond these: about how to read the ancient texts that we find in the Bible, whether miracles are possible, whether sin is real and also forgiveness – and even whether machines, like computers or robots, could in some sense become persons by means of artificial intelligence.
It was precisely questions like these that led us to come up with this series. Lots of people, having been exposed to some of these ideas in the contemporary university or in other ways, now have real questions about the faith. Sometimes they are caught in a web of perplexity. That science has made great advances is obvious to us, and its power and usefulness is evident all around us. When you hear proponents of these great technical advances raising questions about more fundamental issues, issues dealing with faith and with philosophy, it’s very easy to find yourself caught in a web of questions and perplexities that might start to hinder your living of the Christian life. So we thought it was very important to try and address some of these things.
What are some significant ways Catholics have contributed to science and how is that highlighted in the series?
We were mindful of the need not only for serious intellectual content in the videos, but also of witness value of having serious scientists talking about faith, showing people that in a very real way, it’s possible to be a high level contemporary scientist who is a strong practicing Catholic. There’s no internal contradiction in that! In fact, there are more practicing Christian believers in the scientific community than you might think. But specifically, to your question, we will highlight some important Catholic scientists from the past who have made great contributions. One of the best examples is the scientist who first proposed the theory of the Big Bang: Georges Lemaitre, who was a Catholic priest. While his discovery was strictly in the realm of science, the mindset he had as a Catholic and a scientist kept his mind open, and may have led him to question the then-reigning assumption that the universe is static. That opened him up to develop a theory of the Big Bang: there is strong evidence that the universe is expanding, and that in its earliest moments was extremely compact.
How can science bolster faith and vice versa?
The best account of the relationship between faith and reason, and therefore between faith and science, was articulated by our patron, St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas held that knowing reality by the light of natural reason, and using all of the powers of the human intellect to come to know that reality, leads us to the truth. This is also the conviction of contemporary science. Aquinas taught that that light of natural reason comes from God, who is also the source of faith. Therefore, there can be no conflict between what reason discovers as true (if it is working well, if it is really doing its job correctly) and what faith teaches us is true. That means we should expect to find, and we do find, convergences between what reason and science discover and what the faith teaches is true. Of course, science cannot prove the faith, nor is the faith simply a replacement for doing the hard work that reason and science set before us, to investigate the world with all the powers of our minds.
Who is the intended audience of the series? Is it more beneficial to those with a prior background in theology or science?
We are aiming this series at anyone interested in these questions. We’re not presupposing any special knowledge, whether of science, of philosophy, or of theology. The goal is to provide a kind of primer to anyone who wants to learn more about science and faith.
Who are the experts featured in this science and faith series and what are their backgrounds?
The two primary scientists in the first few videos are Dr. Karin Öberg (a professor of astronomy at Harvard) and Dominican Fr. Thomas Davenport, (a professor at the Angelicum in Rome, with a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford). They are collaborating with Dominican Fr. James Brent, a philosopher at the Dominican House of Studies, Dominican Fr. Thomas Joseph White, a theology professor in Rome, and myself. We will have the involvement of other scientists, philosophers and theologians as we go forward with the series.
What sort of feedback have you gotten on the Aquinas 101 series?
We started the series because we have student chapters of the Thomistic Institute at universities around the country who sponsor talks on-campus on the Catholic intellectual tradition – and often about Thomas Aquinas. Our students told us that that they needed a more systematic introduction to Aquinas’ thought. That’s why we created the first season of Aquinas 101. We were surprised and delighted to find that many other people have watched the videos and found them to be a great help.
Since launching Aquinas 101, our YouTube channel has garnered over 2 million views. We’re hearing from people literally from every corner of the globe who are watching the videos, which now have subtitles in multiple languages .
How would you describe the upcoming Science and Faith series?
It’s a free video course, with short, animated videos providing concise and clear explanations of the questions that arise at the intersection of science and faith. If you sign up at Aquinas101.com, you receive an email once a week with that week’s video, plus handpicked readings and podcast recommendations related to the video. There’s also a feature where you can submit your questions to a Dominican friar, who will reply to you.
What do you think St. Thomas Aquinas would have thought of this video format?
Well, Aquinas himself wrote a new textbook called the Summa Theologiae. His goal was to provide a concise synthesis of the whole of theology for beginners. We hope that, for people watching Aquinas 101, it will be a kind of rocket booster for them to get on trajectory to go further with the thought of Thomas Aquinas, penetrating deeper into the wonders of the created world that comes from God, and ultimately entering into in the mystery of God himself.
We’ve put so much work into creating this series. We would be very grateful if people shared it with their friends and family. We think it will really help then, and so we want as many people to see it as possible!