ROCHESTER — With more than 40 United States patents to his credit, Dr. Jim Zavislan clearly relishes breaking new barriers of knowledge.
Yet as a devout Catholic, Zavislan also believes that science alone will never be able to explain everything about our world and our existence. Those answers, he asserts, ultimately lie with his maker.
"It’s really through our faith that our pursuit of knowledge brings us closer to God and, really, closer to ourselves," Zavislan, an associate professor of optics at the University of Rochester, said on July 25 at the Elmwood Inn. His presentation, "Faith and Reason: The Catholic Experience on Campus," was attended by approximately 25 people — many of them UR students — as part of the diocesan Theology on Tap discussion series for young adults.
Zavislan shared with his audience four personal observations on why reason cannot exist without faith:
* Science can describe the physical world, but cannot inform its meaning. Zavislan stated that through reason, science tells us a great deal about our world — but that, alone, "does not answer why the physical laws are the way they are." He cited Blessed John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio, in which the pontiff quoted Proverbs 20:24: "Man’s steps are from the Lord; how, then, can a man understand his way?"
* Scientific theory and observation are not absolute. Zavislan said that "scientific theories are all based on assumptions; they can never be measured perfectly and never be proven perfectly." He added that narrative inconsistencies exist in Scripture due to the audience they were written for as well as imperfections of language and translation, yet he said that science is similarly nuanced. "Just as the sacred texts must be interpreted in light of the intended audience, scientific theories must be interpreted in light of their assumptions," he said.
* The application of science can both mitigate and exacerbate human suffering: How do we choose what is right? Zavislan pointed out that many lives have been saved through medical advances, but many also have been lost through inventions that bring about mass destruction — and thus, it’s vital that scientific discoveries be applied from a faith-based perspective. "Just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done. Our values of the sanctity of life and our position before God inform us as to whether something is right," he said.
* Historically, reason-based descriptions of the physical world have always proven incomplete or found later to be lacking. According to Zavislan, "every generation thinks it’s at the cusp" of having definitive proof of scientific workings. Using his area of academic expertise as an example, Zavislan noted that ancient Greeks were certain light essentially emanated from humans’ eyes to create sight.
Zavislan said he grew up a casual Catholic, feeling that science contained more credible truths than his faith. But he was profoundly moved as a U R doctoral student in the 1980s by two roommates’ strong rebuttal to a fellow student’s assertion that scientific reasoning could disprove the existence of a Christian God. From that point on, he felt that "science itself wasn’t gaining fulfillment" and he was soon confirmed through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He is currently a parishioner at Church of the Transfiguration in Pittsford.
"Science does not totally explain the world. Faith is the understanding that there are greater things than we can understand," said Zavislan, who also cited a quote from St. Augustine: "I believe in order to understand, and I understand, the better to believe."
Two UR Newman Catholic Community members who attended Zavislan’s July 25 lecture agreed with his points. Vincent Ness, 21, who is beginning his senior year as a chemical engineering major, noted that he attended a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C., where faith and reason were consistently presented as being interrelated. Thus, although he’s found that viewpoint isn’t nearly as widely held on a secular college campus, "I never really felt the two had to be separate."
Ryan McMichael, 23, just obtained his master’s degree in optics with Zavislan serving as his academic adviser. McMichael observed that even in today’s scientific world "there are just things we hold to be true that might prove to be false." He added that since human beings were created by God to begin with, "how can we ever hope to understand everything that was created?"