Monday, July 11, 2005

The Rebel Cardinal

“Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order.”
—Einstein, “On Scientific Truth,” in Ideas and Opinions, p. 262.

Evidently seeking to overthrow the affiliation made by Pope John Paul II between the Roman Catholic Church and the scientific case for evolution, by resurrecting something like the isolated, non-overlapping magisteria view of the respective domains of science and theology, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn opined last Thursday in The New York Times that the Church does not accept evolution, contrary to what we have thought for at least the last two decades. The Church, he said, should recognize, as it supposedly has since 1985, when John Paul lectured on nature, that there is purpose and design in the natural world, pace the Darwinian theory of natural selection, a theory about the natural, materialistic mechanism that, by slight modifications over millions of years, has produced the tremendous variety and variation of species in history.

What of this alleged design in nature that a Creator must be the cause? Does it conflict with evolution?

Following John Paul’s 1985 comments, Schönborn’s argument is thus: There is a direction in nature, i.e., it is not abandoned to “pure chance and necessity,” and we know this because the direction or design is readily discernible by “the light of human reason.” Further, since design implies a designer, one is obliged to suppose the existence of a Mind or Creator—God—as its author, its cause. As a result, nature becomes a dispensation of divine providence, of God, who invested it with His design, and this design, even if ultimately unknowable, is nonetheless in evidence in the immanent development of life in the universe, in the “internal finality [purpose or design] which arouses admiration.” In short, the evolution of species is guided by divine providence. So-called “natural selection” isn’t natural in the sense of random and unplanned, for if something like natural selection is true, it is God’s truth, and therefore planned and guided. Thus “An unguided evolutionary process—one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence—simply cannot exist.” Finally, if this is true, one must conclude that, “Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ‘chance and necessity’ are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.”

Clearly, the unstated assumption the Cardinal finds threatening is that divine providence cannot coexist with an unguided evolutionary process. But I see no reason why the Church can’t re-conceive divine power and divine providence to allow for unguided natural selection, and equate the truth of evolution with the truth of God. The conflict just doesn’t exist (see letters to the editor). At any rate, biologist Kenneth R. Miller is right, science cannot speak on whether or not evolution can fall within God’s providential plan.

But the theory of evolution might not be so threatening to those who see admirable “finality” in nature after all. In the way I read Darwin, he does not dispute the notion of design in nature; on the contrary, he sees that as the “fact”—the mystery of mysteries—that stands in need of “explanation”: “It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the ‘plan of creation,’ ‘unity of design,’ &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact.” And give an explanation is precisely what he did by opening inquiry on, generally speaking, “the really governing conditions of life,” the causes and laws of variation, the laws of growth, the effects of use and disuse of the varying parts of each being, the affects of direct action of external conditions, and so forth. Moreover, such expressions as “design in nature” not only hide our ignorance of nature, but will block efforts at understanding, again, in Darwin’s words, “her scheme of modification”—especially if schools are required to teach evolution as “just one of many theories.” It is easy to forget just how incomprehensible and noble Nature’s power is, let alone God’s: “What limit can be put to this power, acting during long ages and rigidly scrutinizing the whole constitution, structure, habits of each creature,—favoring the good and rejecting the bad? I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life. The theory of natural selection, even if we looked no further than this, seems to me to be in itself probable.”

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