The Limits of Science

In the 2008 motion picture, My Zinc Bed, a tough, no-nonsense internet entrepreneur, played by Jonathan Pryce, recites a litany of notions that he feels no intelligent person could possibly believe.  Included in his litany is the “virgin birth”.  The character to whom he delivers his allocution, a recovering alcoholic, makes no response.  His silence seems to imply consent.

It is in cinematic moments such as this, that I want to insinuate myself into the movie and speak for some hapless persona.  Pryce’s soliloquy should not go unchallenged.  His partner should not remain tongue-tied.  The following is my personal, though purely imaginative, alteration of the script.

DD: “Just a second.  What is so unbelievable about the Virgin Birth?”

JP:  “Are you not familiar with the facts of life?  The concept of a virgin birth is resoundingly unscientific.”

DD:  “Indeed I am, but science does not know all the facts.  And since this is the case, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility of an event occurring that science cannot explain.”

JP:  “When we go outside science, we inevitably land in the area of superstition, and ultimately believe in hogwash.”

DD:  “If you will pardon me, I believe you have set up a false dichotomy:  science or superstition.  We over-rate science.  Good scientists understand the limits of science and that the ‘great ocean of truth’, to quote Sir Isaac Newton, ‘lies unknown’ before us’.”

JP:  “But science continues to move into that area of the unknown.  As science progresses, superstition dissolves.”

DD:  “But science itself cannot get started without accepting the unscientific belief that the universe is orderly.  Einstein, himself, no scientific slouch, said that the most incomprehensible thing for him was that the universe is comprehensible.  How did it get that way?  Why the universe is comprehensible and not chaotic is not something that science itself can determine.”

JP:  “Alright! Alright!  So there are some things that science cannot figure out.  But what does that have to do with the virgin birth?”

DD:  “If you deny the Virgin Birth, you deny along with it, God’s divine prerogative to choose the manner in which He comes into the world.  If we accept God as a Creator of the universe, why should we put limits on his power?  Science tells us about parthenogenesis, does it not?”

JP:  “I am not all that familiar with the term ‘parthenogenesis’.  Remember, I was a business major.”

DD:  “Parthenogenesis is a biological term that refers to reproduction without any male element, such as the development of eggs in certain insects from virgin females, independently of fertilization by union with a member of the opposite sex. To achieve a single instance of a Virgin Birth for a human female would be easy for God, it would seem.”

JP:  “It still seems utterly gratuitous to me.  I’m going to stick with science and hard facts.”

DD:  “Mary’s Virgin Birth is much easier to accept than other events associated with her, such as how her image as ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ was impressed on a tilma.”

JP:  “What do you mean?”

DD:  “A physicist by the name of Adolfo Orozco has studied this image for years and has come to the conclusion that it is ‘completely outside’ of any scientific explanation.  He explains that due to the humid, salty environment around the basilica where the tilma is kept in Mexico City, the cloak material should have decomposed many years ago.  In fact, as Orozco has noted, this is what happened to a painted copy of the image made in 1789 on a material similar to the original tilma and kept behind glass like the original.  It had to be discarded eight years later because it was falling apart and the painting was fading.  But the original remains intact after 478 years.”   

JP:  “This all sounds preposterous.”

DD:  “But you cannot deny the facts.  As you claim, your own philosophy is built on facts.  Stubbornly and exclusively, I might add.  Here are two facts that are known to many:  1) A bomb was exploded next to the image with the purpose of destroying it.  Although there was considerable collateral damage, the image remained unaffected.  2) Nitric acid was accidentally spilled on a section of the cloth without damaging it.

JP:  “If this is true, I may have to amend some of my thinking.  But this is a big ‘if’.”

DD:  “The world that science creates is too small for people.  They cannot find their happiness within such a stifling framework.  This is one reason for the fact that religion has been at the center of every civilization throughout history.  We need something we cannot understand so that we can enjoy the things we do understand.  At the heart of what we do know is a mystery.  We cannot look directly at the sun, but it is by virtue of sunlight that everything becomes visible.”

JP:  “You may have a point, but you have not quite weaned me from my skepticism.  Nonetheless, if the ‘Business of America is business,’ as Calvin Coolidge once said, he may very well have left out the more important business of life.”

DD:  “Amen.”

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About the Author

Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ontario; a Visiting Scholar, Holy Apostles College and Seminary; a Distinguished Visiting Teacher, St. Hyacinth College, Granby, Massachusetts; Faculty Member at: Catholic Bible College of Canada; St. Joseph’s College, Edmonton; Mater Ecclesiae, Rhode Island; Domus Mariae, Rhode Island; John Paul II Institute, Melbourne, Australia; and a Lecturer for the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Cambridge, Ontario. He is the author of 21 books, including, How to be Virtuous in a Not-So-Virtuous World with Fr. Bill McCarthy, MSA (Los Angeles, CA: Queenship, 2007); several hundred articles in scholarly journals and in anthologies, and articles and essays appearing in other journals and magazines and in newspapers; and innumerable book reviews in a variety of publications. His education includes: B.S. Stonehill College, North Easton, MA 1959 (General Science); A.B. Stonehill College, 1961 (Philosophy); Gregorian University, Rome, Italy, 1961-2 (Theology); M.A. St. John's University, Jamaica, NY, 1965 (Philosophy); and Ph.D. At. John's Univ., 1969 (Philosophy). His Master's dissertation was "The Basic Concept in Hegel's Dialectical Method" and his Doctor’s dissertation was "The Nature of the Relationship between the Mathematical and the Beautiful in Music". He is married to Mary Arendt DeMarco and they have five children.

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