Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Science and philosophy

If you are not interested in the topic of evolution and its relationship to faith and reason, skip this post!

As I am planning to have a science oriented year, one of the subjects I want to learn more about is the debate on origins: creationism, evolution, Darwinism, intelligent design and so on. Over the last year or so I have been trying to get to grips with the main arguments by reading articles online, so I was interested to see this new article by Cardinal Schonborn, The Designs of Science. This is a follow up to an original article Finding Design in Nature (New York Times, July 2005) written in response to comments made by Catholic physicist Stephen M. Barr in The Design of Evolution (First Things, October 2005). If you are interested in Catholicism and evolution and have not already done so I recommend reading all three, as I'm sure the discussion is not at an end. Unfortunately I think the Cardinal may have done his cause a disservice in publishing an imprecise article that only further muddies some already pretty murky waters. To explain ...

Cardinal Schonborn begins his first article by stating that "evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not". Unfortunately he makes the cardinal error (ouch! dreadful pun!) of failing to define his terms. He admits in his second article that "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." And there we have the problem. The Cardinal's aim - rightly - was to communicate that the debate about origins is far more than just a debate about science, and falls also into the realm of natural philosophy. Not only faith, but also reason, lead to the conclusion that the universe and everything in it is not the result of an "unguided, unplanned" process. Whatever the scientific facts, it is easy to perceive the hand of a creator at work. Unfortunately, by failing to use a few extra words to define what he meant by "neo-Darwinism" (specifically, atheistic neo-Darwinism) he has fallen into the same trap as the atheist neo-Darwinists themselves. Stephen Barr rightly points out that evolution as a process of "random variation and natural selection" is in itself entirely compatible with the Catholic faith. In his second article Cardinal Schonborn himself acknowledges this. The issue is not the process of evolution, but the theological and philosophical importance attached to it. The Cardinal's real target - rightly - was the linking of evolutionary science with atheistic philosophy. If only he had distinguished between the two, his original article would have hit that target. As he didn't, he appeared to reject the science for purely philosophical and theological reasons and left himself open to the accusation of misunderstanding the science.

In this whole debate about evolution and faith, distinguishing clearly between the spheres proper to science and those proper to philosophy and theology is vital. As Catholics we have a framework of faith and reason that allows us to do this without difficulty. The atheistic evolutionists, on the other hand, seem oblivious to the effect of their own philosophical convictions on their interpretation of "science". I have heard the arch-atheist neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins on the radio a few times and have felt like banging my head against the wall in frustration at his lack of logic. They are scientists, not fooled by old-fashioned ideas about God, so they must be right, yes? Well, no actually. They are so busy attacking Christians for allowing theology to skew their views of science that they don't see the mote in their own eye. A more carefully worded article by Cardinal Schonborn could have made their philosophical weakness apparent and used the weight of Catholic philosophy and reason to good effect against their belief in an "unplanned, unguided" universe. Sadly, he missed the opportunity.

1 comment:

Schonborn Site said...

If you are interested in more information on Cardinal Schonborn, as well as his views and ongoing contributions to this debate, you might be interested in visited the site/blog I direct: