Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine May-June 2009

Science and Religion News


Charles Darwin's much-vaunted 200th birthday having occurred on 12th February, just a few weeks later (March 2nd-8th) a major interdisciplinary conference took place in Rome on the Darwinian theory of Evolution. The conference was entitled Biological Evolution, Facts and Theories: A Critical Appraisal 150 Years after 'The Origin of Species.' It took place at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and was co-sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. It was held under the patronage of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, something of a first for the Church. The very last words of the proceedings, of an official of the Council, spoke of the conference as representing an important aspect of the re-starting of a dialogue between the Church and science "which shouldnever have been interrupted". The conference was the third in a series of conferences that have been held under the auspices of the Pontifical Council's 'STOQ' project - the 'Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest' interdisciplinary study programme that has been running now in the Roman Pontifical universities for some five years, and which allows students and scholars to investigate the links and mutual enrichment of the physical and the metaphysical sciences.

The March conference consisted of some 35 lectures presented by an international selection of western academics with various expertise in biology, palaeontology, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy and theology. It aimed to follow an itinerary which began with the evidence for evolution in the biological world, and moved gradually towards its relevance and interpretation in the theological sphere, via the intermediary disciplines of anthropology and philosophy. It took place in an atmosphere of respectful listening and learning, consciously seeking a via media between the more-publicised extreme schools of 'anti-Darwinian' biblical fundamentalism (young-earth creationism) and 'ultra-Darwinian' atheism (scientism). As a Catholic institution sponsoring a conference on evolution,the Gregorian's event attracted a lot of high-profile media interest: even the BBC news website in the UK included a feature on the conference's opening day.

Significant Consensus

Many of the speakers, including many of the scientists, starting with the very opening paper by Cambridge palaeobiologist Simon Conway-Morris, were keen to emphasise above all that whilst accepting fully the rectitude of the science of the biological theory of evolution (mutation with natural selection), yet a "totality of explanation it is not" (Conway-Morris's words). The terms 'convergence' and 'teleology' cropped up with regularity. By 'convergence' is meant that evolutionary history has shown the repeated re-invention of features such as the eye (evolved at least 7 times independently) or functions such as flying (at least 3 times); evolution therefore showing signs of constraint and some direction.

The idea of an 'inner teleology' was introduced into the conference discussion by David Depew (University of Iowa), and extended in an excellent lecture by the Jesuit priest and astrophysicist from Tucson, Arizona, William Stoeger: starting from the evidence that the components of the universe co-operate and build one on another, dependent on relationships and contributing to an emergent complexity, it could easily be shown that a directionality is present in the cosmological as well as the biological evolution of the universe/earth. Of course science as the description of the physical observed does not tell us about any purpose to this directionality. This question, Stoeger pointed out, moves us into the realm of philosophy and revelation. A "functional finality"

or "teleonomy" is written into the laws of nature, across its hierarchical layers. Whilst Fr Edward Holloway, founder of Faith movement, takes such insights towards God, Stoeger caught the mood of the conference by simply saying it was not inconsistent with there existing - above and beyond science - a theological teleology, a "reason for it all" which is given only by God. Of course this 'mood' is that of prominent philosophy of science since the advent of inductive experimental method which has delivered the death knell to deductive proofs of God based upon a priori metaphysical assumptions. Holloway attempts to found metaphysics and induction upon the necessary relationship between unified matter and organising mind, seen as intrinsic to a posterioriintelligible experience.

Lack of Consensus and the Cardinal

Whilst there was also significant agreement concerning the contradictory nature of reductionist philosophy the conference was tentative about whether nature is deterministic and about the nature of human freedom. Although quite a bit of evidence was produced concerning the difference of human behaviour from animals, the nature of spirit, and the ensoulment of man (both in terms of the ensoulment of each individual human person, and also the initial ensoulment of the first fully human man) were unsatisfactorily addressed.

Cardinal Cottier, Emeritus pro-Theologian to the Pontifical Household and member of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, dropped into the conference to, among other things, present the traditional Thomistic ontology and epistemology as a way of defending the "very counter-cultural" concept of the spiritual soul. He argued that our ability to know universal forms is evidence that the soul is of a non-material nature and irreducible to an emergent property of matter. The Cardinal also highlighted an important point of anthropology, namely that the great 'jump' up to the behaviour of Homo sapiens (i.e. to the use of tools, language, artistic and religious expression) was inexplicable solely by a materialistic elaboration of evolutionary theory.

During questions the editor of this magazine suggested to the Cardinal that much of what we had heard at this conference showed that the boundaries of species are not nearly as clear-cut as the Greeks and scholastics thought, and that this put pressure on the Thomistic vision of 'form', and therefore brought out the importance of a developed metaphysics to defend the soul. Cardinal Cottier commented that there still seemed to be a "threshold" between species but that certainly we needed to study the facts and implications of modern science. (See our Letters and Road from Regensburg columns).

There was quite a bit of interest in Teilhard de Chardin, for instance from the French Dominican Professor Maldame who stated that the evolutionary history of the world was also the 'history of soul'. In the question time he clarified that his main desire was to avoid Cartesian dualism, not the Catholic doctrine of the spiritual soul.

Not acknowledging Cosmic Unity

The appreciation of the unity of the cosmos has not yet been achieved by this academic sub-community -let alone the Faith suggestion that this could support the traditional doctrine of God as the mind immediately behind every aspect of the cosmos. "Classical determinism" in terms of the mechanical predictability of more sophisticated stages and properties of evolution from less sophisticated stages was clearly rejected in favour of holistic "emergence". But, a key area of disagreement was whether the material universe involves freedom from being determined. Professor Conway-Morris argued that if the universe was started again in the same way we would end up with something very similar to what

we have now - biologically speaking. Other speakers were not nearly so sure - particularly those who felt some freedom, or "self-organization", existed below man, one even claiming Aristotle's support for this idea.

'Intelligent Design' - in its specific American form as an attempt to find scientifically (in anatomy or molecular biology) gaps in the evolutionary framework - was analysed and not given much credence by the participating lecturers. In discussion it was acknowledged that the apparent support of evolution for moral relativism pushed some concerned people (including parents) into the arms of the creationists but it did not develop into considering how evolution could be interpreted in a non-morally relativist manner.

Despite this rejection of the 'God-of-the-gaps' Robert Russell of the Centre for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, closed the conference with mention of the indeterminacies of quantum mechanics as a possible 'space' within which God can act without 'intervening' upon normal laws as such. He suggested that God might "act through chance and law".

He suggested that we might need a Teilhardian/Rahnerian perspective upon spirit emerging from matter, and also a good "natural theodicy" to take account of the fact that "death is constitutive of evolution". The traditional Catholic prespectives upon the direct creation of the soul and human death being the result of sin were not taken into account.

It was quite clear that many more-consistent answers to the interplay of God's design and the universe's evolution are available, which respect the ability of science within its own field to explain satisfactorily the evolutionary process. Vittorio Hosle of Notre Dame expressed it in this way: "a world without repeated divine miracles is a more divine action than one of repeated interventions." Whilst he supported this classical view of God as simultaneously creating and sustaining the whole universe, he couldn't see the natural universe as clear evidence for this God. He followed Kant in suggesting that the moral 'categorical imperative' was the best evidence for God.

The abstracts of the conference papers are available at: In due course the proceedings will be published.

Faith Magazine