Book Review: But what about Evolution?
But what about Evolution?
The Realist Guide to Religion and Science by Paul Robinson,Gracewing, 527pp, £25.00
reviewed by Philip Miller
This book by American priest Fr Paul Robinson is a long read, but one that is for the most part straightforward and takes logical steps towards his goal of showing how a ‘realist’ perspective on the world — as opposed to an empiricist (materialist) or idealist one — allows him to analyse both religion and science, and set them in right relationship to each other. Throughout the book he continually posits realism as the via media, holding both faith and science as true in their respective fields, and complementary. As a Thomist scholar, but also with a scholarly background in Engineering Mathematics and Computer Science, Robinson is well placed to examine the field of faith–science relations.
Making intelligent sense of the world
The three great sections of this book treat Reason (philosophy); Religion (theology); and Science (especially physics, biochemistry, and biological evolution). In each section, Robinson argues that only the rationale of a realist approach to existence allows the human mind to make intelligent sense of the world. Thus, for example, in the conclusions of the first section, on Philosophy, he shows how it is our philosophical choices that set up (or avoid) a conflict between Science and Religion in the first place:
“Science relies on realism, because it must assume the existence of reality and a consistent universe in order to pursue its object. These assumptions are provided coherent rational support by the natural theology that directly follows from realism. Religion also needs realism, because religion needs to be reasonable [and] can only be reasonable if it accepts the truths of natural theology which realism argues, and seeks to convince the intellectual judgement of prospective believers of its supernatural dogmas by rational arguments. Religion and science come into conflict only when their practitioners step away from realism.” (p. 107)
This is the basis of this book, then, which seems a common-sense approach to reconciling what other thinkers might hold to be in conflict.
In the central section of the book, on Religion, Robinson contrasts the approaches of paganism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism, and subjects them all to this test of where on the Idealism–Realism–Empiricism scale they lie. Paganism is principally pantheism, identifying the universe with God Himself; and even Aristotle, the subtlest of the pagan thinkers, falls short of a fully balanced physics, because of his assumptions about the nature of God.
Islam is characterized by a “wholly wilful and transcendent God” as opposed to a reasonable one, and the Koran is to be taken literally, without any considerations that human reason might bring to bear on the text, even in its contradictions.
Protestant Christianity is characterized as biblicism, i.e. the notion that the bible is the only source of religious authority, and that one’s reason is not to be brought to bear on the questions that arise, e.g. the interpretation of the Genesis account of Creation. Instead, Catholicism led to a burst of scientific creativity that Robinson assigns to its Christian realism: “That Christian worldview flows ultimately from the doctrine — believed on faith — of creation in time by a transcendent God … Catholics understand that creation proceeded from God’s Wisdom and so the mark of rationality pervades all of Creation.” (p. 158)
Christianity and scientific endeavour
The last of the three main sections of the book considers Science under a variety of titles. Robinson begins by analysing the seventeenth century departure from a happy harmony between mainstream Christianity and scientific endeavour, as both Protestant believers and scientific professionals took leave of philosophical realism, and modern science set sail for materialism. The book then goes on to dedicate a chapter each to: physics, biochemistry, and biological evolution, interpreting each in the light of modern science’s philosophical stance. In the chapter on physics, the evidence is presented that shows how the universe, with its ‘Big Bang’ beginning 13.7bn years ago and fine-tuning, points convincingly to a Creator, but the predominant materialism amongst physicists seems to prevent them from making that connection and leads them instead to adopt elaborate fictions for an uncaused, godless universe. This chapter on physics ends with these words:
“We here come face to face with the premise of this entire book: human understanding of reality is an all or nothing proposition. You either take reason with realism, science and religion all together, or you reject them all. Many modern scientists rejected realism, clamped themselves tightly to empiricism and, inevitably, led by it on its natural course, embraced antiscience, atheism, and irrationality.” (p. 387)
In the chapters on biochemistry and biological evolution, however, Robinson begins surprisingly to deviate away from what would seem the obvious happy harmony of faith and science that he has been constructing all the way through the rest of the book. In the former chapter, he sides with “Intelligent Design” (ID) proponents, though without detailed explanation: there is, he says, “the impossibility of the order of the cell arising by purely natural forces.” But he acknowledges that his great hero, Stanley Jaki, himself does not endorse ID and finds it akin to creationism — the problem is that Robinson does not examine how the Intelligence that truly lies behind all existence, i.e. God Himself, acts as ID says He does in biological history.
In the final main chapter of the book, the discussion of biological evolution leads Robinson away from any affirmation that man could be descended bodily from lower life forms. He takes issue with macroevolution in general, i.e. the development of one species from a previous one; and even ‘theistic evolution’ — God being the reason, and providing the purpose, behind the playing-out of the laws of nature which cause evolution to take effect — Robinson dismisses: “I have argued … that this is not possible,” he says, “because God must create directly the major lines of life. Still, this position is intellectually respectable …” So the book ends very unsatisfactorily, without the fullest possible explanation of faith–science harmony that it set out to deliver.
Fr Philip Miller is a parish priest in the diocese of Westminster and holds a PhD in observational radio-astronomy.