Holes in scientism

Question: A co-worker of mine who claims to be an atheist is dismissive of anything beyond modern science and claims that there is no scientific evidence for the soul and that we are really just advanced apes. What can I say in answer to this?

Jason Reid, Fort Collins, Colorado

Answer: It sounds like the co-worker is a proponent of something called “scientism,” which holds that the physical sciences can now, or one day will, wholly explain all reality, and there is no reality beyond physical matter. The problem with such a claim is that it breaks the very rule it announces. To say there is no reality beyond the physical world is a metaphysical claim; it is a philosophical stance that the physical sciences cannot prove. In other words, he or she is using a non-scientific premise to try to prove that physical science gives a comprehensive explanation for all things.

That there are non-material realities is not difficult to demonstrate. Justice, mercy, humility, beauty and so forth are not physical, but they are real. And while these concepts surely interact with our physical brain and register there, they themselves are metaphysical.

That we can grasp things beyond the physical world and discuss them, points to the existence in us of a non-material and rational soul. For, since action follows being, that we can apprehend non-material concepts and make use of them, points to a reality and faculty about us.

That human beings are different from animals is demonstrable by mere observation. Though we physically resemble animals in many ways, there are dramatic differences. Animals do not write poems or collect their accumulated knowledge in libraries; animals do not invent or show ingenuity; and they show no appreciation for beauty or truth. Apes do not debate matter and form; they do not write on the topic of causality and engage their co-workers on non-material topics. They do not appreciate a Beethoven sonata or ponder an impressionistic painting. There is no “life of the mind” evident in them at all. And even if one may wish to show some rudiments of this in higher animals, the human person is so dramatically beyond these rudiments that we cannot reasonably conclude that the differences between human beings and animals is anything but vast. All these differences point to the existence of the rational soul. In other words: We are more than merely advanced apes; we clearly have different faculties altogether.

Priestly garb

Question: Our priest seldom wears clerical attire. He often comes over to the church in athletic clothes. Is this right?

Name withheld, New Mexico

Answer: A priest should generally wear clerical attire. Canon Law says, “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb according to the norms issued by the conference of bishops and according to legitimate local customs” (Canon No. 284). The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, “Outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric” (Index of Complimentary Norms, No. 3).

Thus, clerical attire ought to be worn. There can be common-sense exceptions perhaps, e.g., when playing sports, at a picnic or on a day off, etc.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.