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.