Avery Cardinal Dulles: God and Evolution

Last night, I read Avery Cardinal Dulles’s essay “God and Evolution” in First Things. Dulles’s tone is refreshing, and he respectfully addresses the various perspectives in many of the current debates with charity and grace. He draws on and explains the Catholic position on evolution especially as developed by John Paul II, which I tend to agree with, throughout the essay. He also insists, along with John Paul II, that although religion and science are separate, they complement each other:

[John Paul II] recommended a program of dialogue and interaction, in which science and religion would seek neither to supplant each other nor to ignore each other. They should search together for a more thorough understanding of one another’s competencies and limitations, and they should look especially for common ground. Science should not try to become religion, nor should religion seek to take the place of science. Science can purify religion from error and superstition, while religion purifies science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each discipline should therefore retain its integrity and yet be open to the insights and discoveries of the other.

A corollary of this is that “knowledge” has a broader range than what we can simply observe and categorize. On Dawkins and his ilk, Dulles has this to say:

The proofs for the existence of God, [Dawkins] believes, are all invalid, since among other defects they leave unanswered the question “Who made God?” “Faith,” he writes, “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. . . . Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice in any religion.” Carried away by his own ideology, he speaks of “the fatuousness of the religiously indoctrinated mind.” He makes the boast that, in the quest to explain the nature of human life and of the universe in which we find ourselves, religion “is now completely superseded by science.”

Dawkins’ understanding of religious faith as an irrational commitment strikes the Catholic as strange. The First Vatican Council condemned fideism, the doctrine that faith is irrational. It insisted that faith is and must be in harmony with reason. John Paul II developed the same idea in his encyclical on Faith and Reason, and Benedict XVI in his Regensburg academic lecture of September 12, 2006, insisted on the necessary harmony between faith and reason. In that context, he called for a recovery of reason in its full range, offsetting the tendency of modern science to limit reason to the empirically verifiable.

Later, Dulles favorably quotes Terry Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic sympathetic at least to certain forms of Christianity who wrote a scathing review of The God Delusion for the London Review of Books a year or two ago. Eagleton’s review is satisfying, if for nothing else, for how eloquently and vehemently he dismantles Dawkins’s arguments (the full review is here). Again, this is Dulles quoting Eagleton:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. . . . If card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins [were asked] to pass judgment on the geopolitics of South Africa, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

Of course, the irony of this quote is that, just as reading Dawkins on theology gives you a rough idea of what it’s like to read a “biologist” who has only read The Book of British Birds, so reading some Christians holding court on atheism can give you a rough idea of what it is like to read Dawkins on theology. In other words, Christians critiquing atheism ought to read more than just The God Delusion. For an excellent example of a Christian who actually listens to atheists, read Merold Westphal’s article “When Not to Refute Atheism: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud for Christian Reflection.”

But one of the most interesting bits of Dulles’s essay comes when he takes a look at some of the epistemological foundations of modern science.

The Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson vigorously contended in his 1971 book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again that Francis Bacon and others perpetrated a philosophical error when they eliminated two of Aristotle’s four causes from the purview of science. They sought to explain everything in mechanistic terms, referring only to material and efficient causes and discarding formal and final causality.

Without the form, or the formal cause, it would be impossible to account for the unity and specific identity of any substance. In the human composite the form is the spiritual soul, which makes the organism a single entity and gives it its human character. Once the form is lost, the material elements decompose, and the body ceases to be human. It would be futile, therefore, to try to define human beings in terms of their bodily components alone.

The ultimate result, Dulles argues, is that scientific knowledge illegitimately provides its own moral justification and, despite the patently good things it has given us, has “visited untold horrors on the world.”

The only odd part of the essay is when Dulles says that “Darwinism has not entirely triumphed, even in the scientific field. An important school of scientists supports a theory known as Intelligent Design.” While Dulles goes on to critique various elements of Intelligent Design, I don’t see how it has at all mitigated the triumph of Darwinism – especially in the scientific field. It has scored some legislative victories, but as far as I can see, in the scientific community it is made the butt of more jokes than it is intellectually engaged. On top of that, I’ve met very few Christian theologians who are even enthusiastic about it. Despite this, most critiques, it seems, typically make an overly-quick categorical judgment (“it’s not real science”), which is actually a categorical mistake. These kind of prima facie judgments only reveal the epistemological mistakes Dulles points out that Bacon and other Enlightenment thinkers made. So while maybe it shouldn’t be given such short shrift, it seems pretty clear to me that, at least among the elites, Darwinism remains regnant. The only way I can make sense of Dulles’s point is that Intelligent Design is influential insofar as it is popular.

The essay is excellent, and I just wanted to share some good parts, so if you’re inclined, read his whole essay. It’ll be well worth your time.

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5 comments so far

  1. Greg on

    “The ultimate result, Dulles argues, is that scientific knowledge illegitimately provides its own moral justification and, despite the patently good things it has given us, has visited untold horrors on the world.”

    I contend that the term “technology” would be more appropriate, instead of “scientific knowledge,” technology being the production, packaging and use of scientific knowledge by people who may or may not understand or care how it works. I personally think the pursuit of scientific knowledge itself is almost by definition moral. The pursuit of technology OTOH is somewhat of a moral wildcard.

  2. jeffreimer on

    Apropos distinguishing between technology and science: good point. I was being sloppy. Dulles actually does as well, but he connects them pretty intimately (calling technology “science’s offspring”).

    Apropos the pursuit of scientific knowledge almost by definition being moral, I agree in as much as knowledge is a good, but it seems difficult often to separate it from technology or at least the application of knowledge (e.g., the debate about stem-cell research: would having that knowledge be worth the price paid for attaining it?).

  3. Greg on

    Often we take some concept and purify it to its essence, and assign an inherent goodness to that purified essence, while at the same time condemning the chaotic, impure, day-to-day outworking of that otherwise pure seed concept. This is of course what I’ve just done by asserting a distinction between science and technology. It’s obviously not a distinction that’s immune to nuance. But I won’t just pick on myself. I believe this same human tendency plays out in the theological realm. For example perhaps one might make a point to distinguish theology from doctrine or religion. Under the banner of religion, then, sometimes bad things have been done, just as sometimes technology is used for bad things. So rather than focusing on only the purified essence of our own discipline, and focusing only on the impure consequences of somebody else’s discipline, what we should all do is roll up our sleeves and get to work asking how how to move away from the impure and toward the pure, not just for ourselves, but for all society. Mostly I think this involves the pursuit of understanding. Not accumulation of facts, but that sort of mind-state understanding that changes who you are as a person. That kind of thing I think is moral. Well this is getting off topic and it’s late ans I’m getting rambly, and I figure you’re already mostly of this mindset anyway.

  4. jeffreimer on

    Yes, good words. I would also add that for the sake of rational enquiry, we often isolate certain phenomena in order to analyze them. The problems come when we forget that those phenomena never occur in the academic vacuum we’ve created, and we start talking about them as if they do.

  5. Greg on

    I actually think William Dembski’s theory of intelligent design (complex specified information, etc) is quite fascinating. I’m not sure how much hard scientific value it has, in that I don’t know what useful predictions it can make about the world, but it seems to be an interesting exploration of the concept of intelligence. Where I think Dembski goes off the rails is in trying to use it to refute evolution. If you apply his theory but ignore the anti-evolution part, what emerges is a picture of a physical universe that’s imbued with a diffuse intelligent potential, which in certain circumstances can become localized, i.e. biological life.


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