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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Follow-up on L'Osservatore Romano Article 
20th-Jan-2006 02:32 pm
I See You!
From this week's "The Word From Rome" column by John Allen:
There's a growing debate at senior levels of the Catholic Church about what to make of the theory of evolution, and it took a new twist this week with the publication of an article in L'Osservatore Romano by Fiorenzo Facchini, a professor of evolutionary biology of the University of Bologna.

In summary, Facchini argued that "intelligent design" is not a scientific theory and should not be taught in science classrooms, applauding a recent court decision in Pennsylvania to that effect.

It's the latest development in a debate that has been going on since 1996, when John Paul II defined evolution as "more than a hypothesis." To the outside world, it seemed the Catholic church had made its peace with evolution. Yet for some leading Catholic thinkers, that was a dangerous impression, since some people conclude that if evolution explains the development of life, we don't need God.

That worry burst into public view on July 7, with the publication of an op/ed piece in The New York Times by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, asserting that the Catholic church does not accept evolution, in the sense of a philosophy that excludes intelligent design in nature implanted by a Creator. That triggered a fierce reaction from many Catholic scientists, who felt the cardinal was blurring scientific and theological arguments, and inadvertently aligning the church with anti-evolution advocates of "intelligent design" in the States.

Facchini's piece was their response.

One question that a number of American media outlets asked me this week: Is the L'Osservatore article an official Vatican statement?

The quick answer is "no," but as always with quick answers, things are a bit more complicated. The article was not issued by a Vatican dicastery or approved by the pope, and while L'Osservatore is informally known as the "Vatican newspaper," technically only the items in the "Nostre Informazioni" box amount to official Vatican releases. Yet the contents of the paper reflect attitudes and judgments at high levels, and in that sense provide a window onto what at least some Vatican officials are thinking.

All this underscores the point that sometimes it can be difficult to know what "the church" thinks about something, and this is one of those cases.
I note that once again, it is the point where the physical sciences come to the end of their competency--say, for example, in their method's inability to speak to the meaning of physical facts, if any--that the problem seems to occur. As is quoted above, "Yet for some leading Catholic thinkers, that was a dangerous impression, since some people conclude that if evolution explains the development of life, we don't need God." (My emphasis)

The problem has been that for far too long an anti-Christian, or at least materialist, philosophy has been tacked on to the presentation of this biology. People who did not realize that distinction, could fail to realize that a given discussion had stopped being a scientific treatment of evolution and had now become a philosophical interpretation we can call "evolutionism," or "scientism," or "materialism;" the idea that there is no reality but matter--that there is nothing spiritual in reality. That, of course, is not science. Nor is it very sharp philosophy (any philosophy or theology that requires you not to notice what is being said probably isn't terribly insightful).

When "intelligent design" is presented as a philosophical possibility that one can move toward after they come to the end of what evolutionary science can indicate in its methods, that seems a fine conversation-partner in the academy. When "intelligent design" is presented as an alternative biological construction to evolution, that's when you have an illegitimate move (probably on the part of classical fundamentalist Protestant Creationists) to simply subvert a current term like "intelligent design" for their own ends.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Science needs philosophy, and it needs to be aware of that need, aware of the full variety of philosophical directions that are possible after the physical sciences present their data, and not to dismiss possibilities because some have been misused. That's bad philosophy. And we don't need scientists being bad amateur philosophers any more than we need philosophers being bad amateur scientists.
20th-Jan-2006 10:02 pm (UTC)
The problem with ID in its present form is that it attempts to introduce the miraculous into science. This is a bad move for a number of reasons. Worst of all, it seems to deny the idea of providence -- that all events, miraculous or not, are part of God's intelligent design for creation.
20th-Jan-2006 11:08 pm (UTC)
Are you calling "miraculous" the idea that evolution itself would unfold in certain directions, like Teilhard's idea of biology moving toward Mind, etc? Or are you speaking of "miraculous" as distinct "interventions" that disrupt what would have been an otherwise-undisturbed processs?

What I'm really confused on here is understanding whose "ID" you are referring to. As I understand it, the philosophical question--going back to the "argument from design" we can see in the Summa in the 13th century--is a post-scientific question. I wouldn't consider it a [physical] scientific question per se even if, presuming the Jewish/Christian doctrine of Creation, all of evolution--both cosmic and biological--all necessarily developed from certain trans-natural imperatives. Presuming the doctrine is true--pure simple fact--I still don't see how it could be discovered through any scientific process which is necessarily limited by natural phenomenon. The Scientific Method is incapable of determining such a truth. Nevertheless, the over-all direction of the process, the "shape" of what we discover it leaves incomplete and unsaid, could very rightly open up philosophical conclusions in the "design" direction. While hardly confirming Jewish and Christian theology--Thomas knew that in the 13th century--it would nevertheless open up interdisciplinary discussion between the sciences, philosophy and theology in a much more intellectual and honest way than in which the current philosophical naturalism that is smuggled into evolutionary biology censors such conversation.

Am I on the same page with you here, or am I missing your point?
20th-Jan-2006 11:33 pm (UTC)
By miraculous I mean not having any cause of the sort science can deal with. I think it's fair to say that Behe, Dembski et al say that after a while science must give up looking for causes and say, God did it. But if God, one way or another, does everything, that explains nothing.
20th-Jan-2006 11:54 pm (UTC)
Granted. It would seem to me more helpful to say that science, upon reaching a point where it is no longer capable methodologically of determining causes, can clearly delimit such points and organize them helpfully for other disciplines, like philosophy and theology (which may be more competent in given situations, with their distinct methods), to continue such examinations.

Certainly it doesn't seem logically possible for science, within the nature-confined scope of its limits, to answer origin questions regarding the universe. Philosophy and theology have methods which may be able to go further toward such answers, but those methods have to be learned, understood and assessed on their own merits. I imagine there are other questions it seems to me that might bring the physical sciences to an impasse: for example, I don't know that I can imagine any real justification for a notion of human freedom that science can muster. Their methods seem to naturally (pun intended) to end up in determinisms, as far as I can see. Yet most scientists I know clamor about freedom with the best of them.

Yet I do have to agree that it would be facile for the scientist qua scientist to just say "God" and assume a final word has been said. I hadn't gotten that impression from what I'd read of Behe. At the same time, I would deeply regret it if a scientist was trapped in a professional ideological culture where certain possibilities could not be mentioned and that real difficulties in science could not suggest an openness to the competence of another discipline. If the running presupposition is then that science is all-competent and can ultimately "figure everything out," I would have thought contemporary Philosophy of Science had gotten over that old Enlightenment hang-up.

Still, I can see the point of tension for a scientist of asking where one can draw the line and say, "Thus far and no farther are we likely to progress in our own field's ability to discern causes." Nevertheless, the ideological contamination of contemporary science is clear by the irrational furor that erupts at the suggestion of brushing up to the bounds of another discipline. A truly open and philosophically-uncompromised scientific culture would be able to ask and answer such methodological questions with the kind of disinterestedness and goodwill in which they might ask whether an experiment had been compromised by physical contamination of a control group.
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