Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In 1998, a newsletter that ran under the banner of New Mexicans for Science and Reason carried a news item that was guaranteed to arouse antireligious sentiment. It claimed that the state of Alabama had voted to change the value of pi (π) from 3.14159 . . . to the “biblical value” of 3.0.

The story, naturally, was completely untrue. It is now listed by the San Diego-based Museum of Hoaxes as one of the “Ten Best April Fool’s Day Hoaxes.” In order to earn recognition in this highly selective list, a hoax must have an unusually high degree of absurdity, in addition to a certain plausibility among the gullible. Why is the changing of the value of pi particularly absurd? We may cite three reasons: 1) the value of pi, being the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is fixed and therefore unchangeable; 2) a mathematical law cannot be overturned by a political vote; 3) the Bible is not a geometry text that is more scientifically refined than what geometricians have determined through meticulous measurement. One could, of course, go on.

A good hoax can be good fun. Its perpetrators know full well that they are not telling the truth. The pi story, like Burger King’s celebrated Left-Handed Whopper, was really “pi in the sky.” On the other hand, there are true news items that are just as absurd as the pi fable, yet are not regarded as hoaxes but as insights into reality that warrant enshrinement into law.

Consider the following case in point: On July 9, 2007, the Supreme Court of South Korea ruled that a human fetus is not a human person until the morning that the mother goes into labor. This court is the first to decree such a definitive ruling on the nature of the unborn child. The ruling is not a hoax. Nonetheless, it is as arbitrary, unscientific, and gratuitous as the pi hoax. Politics cannot trump science any more than a court ruling can change the nature of an unborn child. We cannot change things by merely thinking that they are other than they are. Reality is supremely stubborn and has a way of persisting even in the face of denial.
The ancient Chinese used 3 as the value of pi, though certainly not for biblical reasons.

Science, however, does advance. About 1650 B.C., the Egyptians refined its value. Later, the Greek mathematician, Ptolemy, calculated pi to be the equivalent of 3.1416. We now know the value of this irrational, nonrepeating number to millions of decimal places.

Likewise, before the science of neonatology, embryology, and fetology, the true nature of the unborn human was not nearly as refined and clear as it is today. Ironically, the life of a 21-week unborn child can now be saved in an incubator (which cannot go into labor, anytime during the day), while a 42-week unborn child is not considered a human being. Science also trudges backwards! The late Dr. Herbert Ratner carried a popular feature in Child & Family Quarterly, which he edited, called, “Recent Setbacks in Medicine.”

Concerning the South Korea ruling, Father Lee Dong-ik – professor of medicine at the Catholic University of Korea and a member of the Bioethics Committee at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea – calls it an “extremely shocking and deplorable verdict.”

Here is an example, all too common in our brave new world, of Catholics standing by the objectivity of science while secularists not only disregard scientific findings, but also castigate Catholics for allegedly being opposed to science. Catholics, however, understand, to cite Thomas Aquinas, how reason serves as a “preamble to faith.” The secularist often begins with faith in an ideology that soon proves incompatible with reason. Then he sacrifices reason to remain faithful to his ideology.

To proclaim an absurdity for fun is one thing. We can all use a good laugh from time to time. But to stand behind an absurdity and accord it more value that the reality it eclipses is not only self-defeating, but carries potentially tragic consequences. As Voltaire once remarked, in one of his more lucid moments, “We will continue to commit atrocities as long as we believe in absurdities.”

Science confirms and clarifies the human nature of the unborn human. But even scientists themselves may eschew the scientific attitude. Abortion has become a convenience. The unborn child is the first but by no means its last victim. The list of victims is considerable, including mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, marriages, society, the medical profession, and so on. But to this ever-expanding list, we can add another – reason itself.

Dr. Donald DeMarco, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, is a member of the American Bio-ethics Advisory Commission and a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.