Cutting Edge. A Monthly Review Of Scientific News
Cutting Edge. A Monthly Review Of Scientific News

Cutting Edge. A Monthly Review Of Scientific News

FAITH Magazine March-April 2006


The important debate over the nature of the Church’s acceptance of the theory of evolution has been refined over the last couple of months, allowing a clarification of the key issues. Cardinal Schönborn has continued to be active in this, contributing a number of lengthy articles to the discussion, for example in a series of monthly catechetical lectures in the Stephansdom, his cathedral church in Vienna. At the time of writing, his website has the first four lectures available , three already in English translation. His first lecture set the scene, discussing the background to the relationship of faith and science, a history of co-operation and also of conflict, especially with reference to evolution. His second lecturetreated the idea of the beginning of space and time, and its relation to cosmology’s ‘Big Bang.’ Then, the recently translated lecture, the third, extends into a discussion of the growing multiplicity of forms in creation, through evolution, and specifically tackling the question of causation by God as creator, and secondary, natural causes within the created order. He brings out explicitly the distinct nature of man, at the pinnacle of creation, and that creation has a real and discernible direction, and a goal, intended by God, for man.

In another setting, there has been much progress too. The July 2005 article by Cardinal Schönborn spawned countless responses and one particularly intelligent series of articles and letters has appeared in the journal First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York. In that journal in October, Stephen Barr (author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, reviewed in ‘Cutting Edge’ in November/December 2003) wrote an article entitled ‘The Design of Evolution.’ In the January 2006 edition, Cardinal Schönborn replied at length to Barr’s criticisms. Both of these articles are available in full at The February issue, unavailable at the time of writing, includes a further article by Stephen Barr, entitled ‘The Miracle of Evolution.’ The outcomeof these articles, and the accompanying correspondence, is a focussing of the discussion onto key points.

The first of these is the nature of what has been meant by ‘random,’ as this column has highlighted in preceding issues of the Faith magazine. Barr argues that in science the term ‘random’ — statistical randomness — does not mean what the Cardinal had intimated. In Barr’s sense, the randomness present in quantum physics, or in genetic mutation, is a feature of the natural world as we encounter it, and as science describes it. He says that “the word ‘random’ as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated.” And later, he adds that “to employ arguments in science based on statistical randomness and probability is not necessarily to ‘oppose’ the idea of chance to the existence of God the Creator.” The Jesuit, Joseph Fessio, in a relevant letter tothe journal in January, clarifies this point: “ ‘random genetic variations’ are ‘foreseen’ from God’s point of view and have determinate causes.” And Barr, in a subsequent letter, affirms: “The whole point of my article was precisely to demonstrate that the narrow concept of randomness that is used throughout all branches of science is compatible with a divine Providence that governs and directs every event in the universe.”

A second point is that certain neo-Darwinian evolutionary biologists deliberately choose to apply indiscriminately the terms of science to the realms of theology. Cardinal Schönborn had criticized the broader thrust of “neo-Darwinian dogma”, and in his first catechetical lecture has given examples of the misapplying of scientific ideas to make atheistic philosophical inferences. Barr takes the Cardinal to task for the wholesale criticism of ‘neo-Darwinism”, arguing that in fact neo-Darwinism is a scientific theory about evolution, and not a philosophical world-view. Fessio, in his above-mentioned letter, brings some clarity: “The confusion arises when scientists and non-scientists alike speak of ‘random’ or ‘chance’ mutation. In the minds of many of them this does equal ‘uncaused’ andtherefore ‘unplanned’ — and therefore opposed to the existence of God the Creator. Barr rightly maintains that this is not science. And so does Cardinal Schönborn, which is why he calls it ‘ideology, not science.’ But many scientists do make this equation. And many say so publicly, some quite stridently — Richard Dawkins and James Watson being notable examples. It is to these that Cardinal Schönborn’s criticism is directed, [which] is not an intrusion of theology or philosophy into science; it is a higher order of knowledge showing where science has gone beyond the limits of its own method.”

A third point is that of avoiding an ontological separation of scientific ‘material’ and ‘efficient’ causes in nature from the higher ‘formal’ and ‘final’ causes. Modern science does not point to a reductive approach to nature, limited to material and efficient causes, but to a more holistic picture, in which science itself is seamlessly connected with the purpose of the universe, its plan and direction. Neither excluding a priori with positivists anything more than the material and efficient causes, nor making philosophy, as the ‘science of common experience,’ superior to science, as Schönborn would have it, is a valid description of the world. The intelligible principles of finality — traces of the Mind of the Creator —discerned through a holistic analysis of the scientific data arejust as much a part of the substantial reality of the cosmos as the matter itself.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2006