DARWIN AND DESIGN

Just in time for the Intelligent Design decision to be handed down, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn – who penned a New York Times op-ed earlier this year that was widely criticized (by Andrew, for instance, and by Stephen Barr in this First Things essay) as an unwarranted attack on evolutionary science, and possibly a brief for ID – has a longer piece in First Things clarifying his take on Darwinism. It turns out, as far as I can tell, to be roughly the same take that the Church has held for the last century or so – namely, that that “a metaphysically modest version of neo-Darwinism could potentially be compatible” with Catholicism, but that there is “a difference between a modest science of Darwinism and the broader metaphysical claims frequently made on its behalf,” and that the Church must necessarily reject a Darwinism that insists, as Schonborn quotes an American scientist putting it, that “the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance” and that “there are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.”

It seems as though much of the confusion resulted from Schonborn using the term “neo-Darwinism” in his original op-ed to characterize the militant philosophical atheism of – well, of nearly every prominent defender of Darwinism, from Dawkins and Dennett to Wilson and Watson, all of whom insist that reasoning about nature, biology, and so forth leads inexorably to a disbelief in divine design. This was interpreted to mean that Schonborn was attacking the science of “neo-Darwinism” – the mainstream consensus among biologists concerning evolution through natural selection and how it works. In fact, Schonborn says in his FT essay, the original op-ed was about our “philosophical knowledge of reality,” not our scientific knowledge of the same. The Cardinal wasn’t critiquing evolutionary biology’s ability to explain how homo sapiens evolved from an australopithicene ancestor; he was critiquing modern science’s claim to be an all-encompassing explanation of existence:

Let us return to the heart of the problem: positivism. Modern science first excludes a priori final and formal causes, then investigates nature under the reductive mode of mechanism (efficient and material causes), and then turns around to claim both final and formal causes are obviously unreal, and also that its mode of knowing the corporeal world takes priority over all other forms of human knowledge. 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 itselfx97in other words, that an understanding of how something came to be is the same as understanding what it is. But Catholic thinking rejects the genetic fallacy applied to the natural world and contains instead a holistic understanding of reality based on all the faculties of reason and all the causes evident in naturex97including the x93verticalx94 causation of formality and finality.

This is obviously not a way of approaching the study of the world, and man’s place in it, that many evolutionary biologists would be inclined to accept – but neither does it represent a significant change in the Catholic approach to evolution, or to science generally. Indeed, it’s hard to see how Catholicism could approach science in any way other than this – that is, treating it as a valid approach to knowledge that goes a long way toward explaining the world, without going nearly far enough.

– posted by Ross

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