Monday, December 19, 2005

Cardinal Schönborn Clarifies

In the current freebie online First Things article, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn replies to this Stephen Barr article. It's worth reading, and pondering. In it, he insists that he was not endorsing Intelligent Design, but expounding more venerable Thomist ideas about the nature of Creation.

My argument was based neither on theology nor modern science nor "intelligent design theory." In theology, although the mind's ability to grasp the order and design in nature is adopted by, taken up into, and elevated to new heights by the faith of Christianity, that ability precedes faith, as Romans 1:19-20 makes clear. In science, the discipline and methods are such that design, more precisely, formal and final causes in natural beings, is purposefully excluded from its reductionist conception of nature.

Instead, my argument was based on the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings. Nothing is intelligible--nothing can be grasped in its essence by our intellects--without first being ordered by a creative intellect. The possibility of modern science is fundamentally grounded on the reality of an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds. Res ergo naturalis inter duos intellectus constituta "The natural thing is constituted between two intellects", in the words of St. Thomas. In short, my argument was based on careful examination of the evidence of everyday experience; in other words, on philosophy.

Okay, fine: nothing to get alarmed about here. Philosophy is the study of the nature of reality, and Catholic philosophy will necessarily have admixtures of the Divine in it. But the Cardinal apparently still thinks that the "neo-Darwinists" are overstepping their bounds:

I agree that there is a difference between a modest science of Darwinism and the broader metaphysical claims frequently made on its behalf. But which of those two is more properly called "neo-Darwinism" in an unqualified way, as I did in my essay?

For now, I happily concede that a metaphysically modest version of neo-Darwinism could potentially be compatible with the philosophical truth (and thus Catholic teaching) about nature. If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes' and Bacon's project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise. It is obviously compatible with the full truth that the world of living beings is replete with formality and finality. It comes as no surprise that reductionist science cannot recognize those very aspects of reality that it excludes—or at least, seeks to exclude by its choice of method.

Teleology enters the discussion:

But how successful is modern biology, seeking to be true to its founding principles, at excluding the rational consideration of final cause?

He lobs Dr. Barr's license plate analogy back at him. And he disputes the nature of the randomness he alleges that scientists employ in thinking about evolution.

The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term "random". But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today.(sic) In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don't know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.

One of the problems here is that the "complete set of plants and animals that exist today" is not complete. Most species that have ever existed are now extinct, so scientists tell us. We don't even live in the heyday of the Age of Mammals anymore, as most of the biggest, most wonderful beasties vanished even before the paleo-Amerinds killed off the rest. And let's not even get into the matter of our extinct fellow hominids. Yes, the sequence of evolutionary events that resulted in the appearance Homo sapiens can indeed be termed an "upward sweep." But the chain of descent that resulted in a eyeless, unpigmented cave salamander could just as easily be called a "downward sweep." And whatever promptings of natural selection that turned a perfectly well adapted terrestrial group of ancient artiodactyls into modern whales must be termed a "sideways sweep." There's nothing "clearly teleological" about natural history, when all the interplay of evolutionary pressures and ebb and flow of species are considered.

Taken together, this must spell randomness. Don't misunderstand: I'm very pleased to be here, a member of the Christian community of faith, with both the brains to perceive the universe to an extent and the humble wonder to be astounded by it. But I believe that the very fact of existence, as opposed to whatever supernatural pattern we may strive to see in it, is itself indicative of a transcendent something beyond. Immanence may not be the right word for what I'm objecting to, but it's probably close. I would actually think less of the Creator if He was constrained to take a visible hand in the operation of the universe, if our scientific inquiries could actually jacklight Him at His forge, pumping the bellows of Creation.

Cardinal Schonborn continues with some criticisms of positivism, and how it has caused mechanistic science to usurp the role of philosophy. To become one of the "first things," if you will.

Being mechanistic, modern science is also historicist: It argues that a complete description of the efficient and material causal history of an entity is a complete explanation of the entity itself, in other words, that an understanding of how something came to be is the same as understanding what it is.

This may well be an insufficient base for a worldview, as judged by the Thomist/Teilhard Catholic theology the Cardinal expounds here. But it has brought quite a lot more of the universe to our attention, His Wonders To Unfold, than the "higher truth" approach to knowledge had done in the past. If it hadn't, I'd be blogging this with smoke signals.

(I blogged the original Stephen Barr article here.)

UPDATE: Ohio U. philosophy professor Scott Carson has a much more lucid post on the same article.

UPDATE II: Blogger's spellchecker is making ascii applesauce of my post. I think I've got all the typos it created corrected now.


  1. an interesting treatment.

    I am, however, puzzled by (as you might expect) your discussion of randomness/immanence/God's involvement in creation.

    perhaps I understood you wrongly, but science can indeed discover some part of the HOW involved in God's providence, with the understanding that it never completely comprehends the totality - I believe that is what Schonborn is about in his clarification of final/formal causes vs. material/agent (at least in a thomistic sense).

    anyhow, it's been interesting to watch how the discussion continues to unfold.

  2. My post is scarcely even an opinion, more like a reaction. I am not trained in these disciplines--witness my groping for the right words--and I do not pretend that I could hold up my end of the conversation with the Cardinal.

    My big sticking point is that I believe that science not only does not "comprehend the totality", but that it does not even attempt to. At least, not anymore, after the hubris of the 19th century subsided. I do not believe that science can or ought to try to detect God (if I understand your statement about "God's providence" correctly) in any of its areas of inquiry. That's why I loathe the Intelligent Design movement so much, and so it's good to see the Cardinal isn't falling for it.

    As for immanence, I guess I was thinking of this quote:

    There is the fact of the nearness of God, what the books call his "immanence". Push it too far and you have "pantheism"--a God lost in the world to which he is near.
    --Cleland B. McAfee, _Near to the Heart of God_, 1954


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