Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Schonborn in First Things

Reactions to the Dover decision are coming in thick and fast, but I've had enough of that subject for the time being. Instead I'd like to spend a few days whittling down the big pile of periodicals I have on my desk.

Take this article, by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, from the January 2006 issue of First Things. You probably recall that Schonborn published an op-ed in the New York Times a while back in which he criticized something called the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.

The Times piece caused some consternation since it superficially appeared to be a retreat from the Catholic Church's previous position on evolution. In reality it was just a poorly written restatement of the familiar Catholic view: Evolution is fine as long as it sticks to bodies. But only the Church can tell you about the true meaning of things. Nonetheless, the present essay is meant to be a clarification of his views on this subject.

Overall it's just the usual religious simple-mindedness. Science is all well and good, but we shouldn't let it distract us from the self-evident truths that God exists, that humans are the point of it all, and that the Church has something to contribute to a discussion of these topics. Yawn.

But some of the specifics are worth looking at. We begin at the end:

Some may object that my original small essay in the New York Times was misleading because it was too easily misunderstood as an argument about the details of science. As a matter of fact, I expected some initial misunderstanding. Even had it been possible to state in a thousand words a highly qualified and nuanced statement about the relations among modern science, philosophy, and theology, the essay would likely have been dismissed as “mere philosophy,” with no standing to challenge the hegemony of scientism. It was crucially important to communicate a claim about design in nature that was in no way inferior to a “scientific” (in the modern sense) argument. Indeed, my argument was superior to a “scientific” argument since it was based on more certain and enduring truths and principles.

Well, that's just lovely. Scientific in sneer quotes. Arguing from groundless “enduring truths and principles” is better than basing your argument on meticulously collected evidence (science in the modern sense, indeed). Making his Times essay appear to be commenting on science was just a clever ploy to make us not dismiss his argument out of hand.

When used by clerics, expressions like “hegemony of scientism” should be understood as code for the frustration they feel that very few people take them seriously anymore. Everyone realizes that if you want to understand the natural world you look to the methods of science, not revelation, and certainly not the addle-brained musings of clerics who have no basis at all for the assertions they make.

This last point is especially important in light of Schonborn's repeated claims that his is an argument based on reason. He writes (replying to a previous essay by physicist Stephen Barr):

Barr’s essay addresses at some length the question of design in biology, but does not clearly affirm that reason can grasp the reality of design without the aid of faith. If my reading is correct (and I hope I am wrong), in that respect Barr has followed the overwhelming trend of Catholic commentators on the question of neo-Darwinian evolution, who gladly discuss its compatibility with the truths of faith but seldom bother to discuss whether and how it is compatible with the truths of reason. (Emphasis in original).

In light of such statements you might expect Schonborn to provide some reason-based argument for the reality of design in nature. I sure was. But he never provides any such thing. Instead he repeatedly says things like this:

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.

Schonborn seems to think that making bald assertions, about modern science only being possible under a presumption of theism, for example, is the equivalent of making a reasoned argument for those assertions. I find this frustrating.

Let me be more precise. In recent months I have read Brain Greene's book The Fabric of the Universe and Sean Carroll's book Endless Forms Most Beatuiful. Currently I am working my way through Leonard Susskind's book The Cosmic Landscape. The first and last of these are about modern theories of physics, while the middle one is about the role of embryology in evolution. When I read books like these I see scientists going to a great deal of trouble to try to make complex ideas comprehensible to the layman. Chapter after chapter they marshall their facts, discuss the ingenious techniques used to ferret them out, and give you some sense of the history of the ideas they are discussing. After many pages of this foundational material, they offer a few cautious speculations about where things are going.

When I contrast their writing to that of a phony like Schonborn, I am reminded anew of how empty and worthless theology is. It offers nothing beyond mere assertion. It derives its authority solely from the willingness of people to believe it, and not from any agreement with the facts of nature. Scientists try to bring clarity to that which is mysterious. Clerics try desperately to create mystery where there isn't any.

Virtually every paragraph of this essay deserves a response, but let me close with one more excerpt:

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. 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.

Some may object: This is a pure tautology, not scientific knowledge. I have assumed the conclusion, “rigged the game,” and so forth. But that is not true. I have simply related two indisputable facts: Evolution happened (or so we will presume, for purposes of this analysis), and our present biosphere is the result. The two sets of facts correlate perfectly. Facts are not tautologies simply because they are indisputably true. If the modern biologist chooses to ignore this indubitable correlation, I have no objection. He is free to define his special science on terms as narrow as he finds useful for gaining a certain kind of knowledge. But he may not then turn around and demand that the rest of us, unrestricted by his methodological self-limitation, ignore obvious truths about reality, such as the clearly teleological nature of evolution.

Number me among the objectors. This is a classic case of assuming what you are tyring to prove. Yes, of course, if you start from the assumption that human beings are the point of it all, then it is remarkable indeed that the vicissitudes of four billion years of evolution brought us right where we wanted to be. But Schonborn has no basis for that assumption. I could more plausible argue (following Stephen Jay Gould), that nature was designed to provide an hospitable place for bacteria, with large species like humans and elephants being an occasional aberration. But the overwhelmingly dominant life forms on the planet, today as it has always been, are the bacteria. What are we to conclude from that.

What it really comes down to is this. Scientists have certain facts to confront. They look at our extensive fossil record and see that random mass extinctions play a pivotal role in the direction of natural history. They find no general trend toward increasing braininess, or even increasing complexity. Geneticists have a good grasp of the mechanisms of genetic variation, and can find no directional or guiding principle in any of it. Field biologists find that the trajectory of evolution is crucially shaped by environmental changes, and these changes are unpredictable as far as we can tell. Anatomists tell us that there is nothing in our physical make-up to distinguish us from the other animals, and that we are the product of the same evolutionary forces as every other species. Based on all of this evidence, scientists begrudgingly conclude that evolution has no overall direction or purpose, and that human beings are just one more species among many.

And in reply people like Schonberg come along and accuse scientists of arrogance. They assert that it is completely obvious that humans were designed, the evidence notwithstanding. Just look at their big brains! They say this is obvious to anyyone who has not been blinded by the limitations of science. Then they tell us the Catholic church is the only outfit that can reliably guide us on questions about morality, God, and our fate in the afterlife.

As Richard Dawkins once said, scientists are amateurs at arrogance.


At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Kevin from NYC said...

Love your ideas, again.

"Geneticists have a good grasp of the mechanisms of genetic variation, and can find no directional or guiding principle in any of it"

May I say: "FOOL!" Go back and read your Hegel. (been a long time for me too). Didn't he say that we live at the culmination of history and that everything that ever happened was destined to lead us to this very point, the apex of life and development?

and read your Candide too. Didn't Dr. Pangloss state that we live in the most perfect of all worlds of all time? and was that not because of the DIRECTION inherent in all evolution?

and so we can read some Marx too...I guess.

all the best

At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Kevin from NYC said...

"Just look at their big brians"

my brother was named Brian. Are you talking about him?

At 9:39 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Thanks for pointing out the typo. I normally don't bother to correct typos (I make so many!) but that one I went back and fixed.

At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmm, the only arrogance I've noticed is your ignorance coupled with your presumption in thinking you actually understand the Church's actual position.

in effect all you do yourself is set up a straw-man argument and knock it over.

You need to read an article or book on this subject by Stanley Jaki, who has doctorates in theology AND nuclear physics (internationally renown):


At 10:07 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Perhaps you can give me an example of something you consider a strawman.

Also, I notice that Dr. Jaki seems to have written a lot of books. Perhaps you could recommend one you found especially insightful.

At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Kevin from NYC said...

Hey Jason no comments on Hegel? what was it called dialectcal materialism?

"The reason the Hegelian dialectic is termed "progressive" is because each new thesis represents an advance over the previous thesis, continually until an endpoint (or final goal) is reached. "world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space." The dialectical process thus virtually defines the meaning of history for Hegel. "

and please know the fool thing was a joke. i hope you got that.

also everyone should go to


and blog Travis on his dumb comments.

At 2:33 AM, Anonymous Jean-Pierre Ady Fenyo said...

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At 4:04 AM, Anonymous Paul@be said...

"I have read Brain Greene's book The Fabric of the Universe",

I guess this is where the big brains went to,

and thanks for clarifying the article, having to read it again to see where the feeling that there was something seriously wrong in it came from would have been a waste of time,

At 4:45 AM, Blogger island said...

Richard Dawkins thinks that our pseudo-capability for imaginining that we can actually detatch ourselves from the natural process isn't equally arrogant to putting ourselves above nature.

He's wrong.

"free-thinkers"... yeah... right.

At 8:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A. I mostly agree with your analysis except for the issue of brain size. The fossil evidence appears to show a tendency to increased brain size in time.

1. The Cretaceous dinosaurs had larger brains (relative to body size) then their Jurassic ancestors.

2. Todays mammals have larger brains (relative to body size)then their ancestors of 50 million years ago

This seems to indicate that increased brain size has a selection advantage.

B. I would also point out that, in fact, three species have evolved very large brains, namely homo sapiens, neanderthals, and bottle nose dolphins. Very large brain size is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for intelligence.

C. As an aside, Professor Dale Russell of North Carolina State Un. has opined that the Troodons (which already had brain cases 10 times the size of the other cretaceous dinosaurs (relative to body size) might have evolved into large brain birdlike animals had they survived the KT extinction.

At 8:22 AM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Jason, glad you wrote about this. Me, I'm still scratching my head over where the good Cardinal gets the idea that natural selection is purely random??

Secondly, he fails to point out that, while yes Church tradition (meaning Aquinas) holds that a person can come to the conclusion that the world requires a First Cause by reason independently of Revelation--Aquinas never said you could also ascertain anything about the nature of said cause without the help of Faith.

At 10:21 AM, Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

I have to admit that I chuckle a bit at Dawkins being the one to say that scientists are amateurs at arrogance. It is true in general, but it's not as if Dawkins isn't practiced at arrogance himself. Of course, he tends to be the most arrogant when he's at his least scientific.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger island said...

Me, I'm still scratching my head over where the good Cardinal gets the idea that natural selection is purely random??

I think that he's saying that a closed, close-up view of the process makes it appear that mutations occur at a rate that is completely unrelated to whatever consequences they might have, whereas a broader, less narrow view makes sense of it all.

I think he has a point.

Secondly, he fails to point out that, while yes Church tradition (meaning Aquinas) holds that a person can come to the conclusion that the world requires a First Cause by reason independently of Revelation--Aquinas never said you could also ascertain anything about the nature of said cause without the help of Faith.

Unless the effect is the cause of the effect.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger island said...

J. J. Ramsey said...
I have to admit that I chuckle a bit at Dawkins being the one to say that scientists are amateurs at arrogance. It is true in general, but it's not as if Dawkins isn't practiced at arrogance himself. Of course, he tends to be the most arrogant when he's at his least scientific.

My point was that scientists are most arrogant when they are most scientific, for the reasons that I gave.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger island said...

Jean-Pierre Ady Fenyo said...

All hail the god, Chaos... may insanity save us from structure and order...


At 12:02 PM, Blogger John Farrell said...

Unless the effect is the cause of the effect.

For example?

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Farrell:
"'Unless the effect is the cause of the effect.'

For example?"

Positive feedback, maybe?

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Whirling Blade said...

FYI, Granville Sewell is in American Spectator with an entropy-based evolution rebuttal. You would think that particular line of attack has been put to bed long ago.

I think I dismantle it fairly well on my site, but it's still an interesting (if flawed) read.

At 5:52 PM, Blogger Jason said...

whirling blade-

Thanks for the link, and good luck with the blog. I htin you've only scratched the surface of everything that is wrong with Sewell's argument!

At 6:46 PM, Blogger island said...

"'Unless the effect is the cause of the effect.'"

John Farrell:
For example?

Anonymous said...
Positive feedback, maybe?

Let's just say that I can use General Relativity to offer a good theoretical proof that the second law of thermodynamics is never violated if particle creation from vacuum energy leaves real holes in the vacuum.

Think about it, if you rip a chunk of energy out of a vacumm then the void that gets left increases negative pressure, which necessarily causes it to expand.

(I'm talking about matter/antimatter particles like we humans, black holes, and supernova are known or theoretically expected to make).

Now follow this, The "antigravity effect" that you get when the hole increases negative pressure gets offset by the increase in positive matter density that you get when you condense/compress negative pressure energy, (which is less dense than matter), down over a finite enough region of space to attain positive matter density.

The offset increase in both, gravity and antigravity means that tension between ordinary matter and the vacuum grows instead, so the integrity of the forces that bind the universe will inevitably eventually be compromised, and BOOM!... the effect becomes the cause of the effect... ;)

Now, tell me that doesn't make enough sense to make ya cry for the obvious simplicity to it all?

The second law says that entropy always increases... *duh@us*

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Sporkyy said...

Buckaroo Bonzai:
"Wherever you go, there you are"

Cardinal Schonborn:
"Here we are, so this is where we were going"

Remind me, what was the last good thing theology did for the world?

At 2:46 AM, Blogger fish said...

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