The Designs of Science

Author: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Published in: First Things 159 (January 2006): 34-38.
Publication date: 2006

In July 2005 the New York Times published my short essay "Finding Design in Nature". The reaction has been overwhelming, and not overwhelmingly positive. In the October issue of First Things, Stephen Barr honoured me with a serious response, one fairly representative of the reaction of many Catholics.

I fear, however, that Barr has misunderstood my argument and possibly misconceived the issue of whether the human intellect can discern the reality of design in the world of living things.

It appears from Barr's essay -and a number of other responses- that my argument was substantially misunderstood. In "Finding Design in Nature," I said:

  • The Church "proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things".

  • "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science".

  • Quoting our late Holy Father John Paul II: "The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality, which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator".

  • Again quoting John Paul II: "To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems".

  • Quoting the Catechism: "Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason. . We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance".

  • Referring to the Church's teaching on the importance and reach of metaphysics: "But in the modern era, the Catholic Church is in the odd position of standing in firm defense of reason as well. In the nineteenth century, the First Vatican Council taught a world newly enthralled by the 'death of God' that by the use of reason alone mankind could come to know the reality of the Uncaused Cause, the First Mover, the God of the philosophers".

My argument was based neither on theology nor modern science nor "intelligent design theory." In theology, although the mind's ability to grasp the order and design in nature is adopted by, taken up into, and elevated to new heights by the faith of Christianity, that ability precedes faith, as Romans 1:19-20 makes clear. In science, the discipline and methods are such that design -more precisely, formal and final causes in natural beings- is purposefully excluded from its reductionist conception of nature.

Instead, my argument was based on the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings. Nothing is intelligible -nothing can be grasped in its essence by our intellects- without first being ordered by a creative intellect. The possibility of modern science is fundamentally grounded on the reality of an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds. Res ergo naturalis inter duos intellectus constituta- "The natural thing is constituted between two intellects", in the words of St. Thomas. In short, my argument was based on careful examination of the evidence of everyday experience; in other words, on philosophy.

Many readers will no doubt be disappointed. It seemed that, right or wrong, my original essay was all about science, about real, tangible, factual knowledge of the material world. But now I admit to be speaking in the language of natural philosophy, that old-fashioned way of understanding reality which quickly faded into the intellectual shadows after the arrival of the new knowledge of Galileo and Newton. Philosophy continues, it is said, only as a goal-narrative for modern science and contains no positive knowledge of its own. In short, I seem to have admitted that my essay was a meaningless or at best subjective form of argument from a discarded and discredited discipline.

It is my sincere hope that for readers of First Things I need not respond to this modern caricature of philosophy. Philosophy is the "science of common experience" which provides our most fundamental and most certain grasp on reality. And, clearly, it is philosophical knowledge of reality that is most in need of defense in our time.

Today, spirit-matter dualism dominates Christian thinking about reality. By "spirit-matter dualism" I mean the habit of thought in which physical reality is conceived of according to the reductive claims of modern science (which is to say, positivism), combined in a mysterious way with a belief in the immaterial realities of the human and divine spirits as known only by faith (which is to say, fideism).

But human reason is much more than just positivistic "scientific" knowledge. Indeed, true science is impossible unless we first grasp the reality of natures and essences, the intelligible principles of the natural world. We can with much profit study nature using the tools and techniques of modern science. But let us never forget, as some modern scientists have forgotten, that the study of reality via reductive methods leads to incomplete knowledge. To grasp reality as it is, we must return to our pre-scientific and post-scientific knowledge, the tacit knowledge that pervades science, the knowledge that, when critically examined and refined, we call philosophy.

Stephen Barr criticizes me for confusing two very different things: the modest scientific theory of neo-Darwinism (which he defines as "the idea that the mainspring of evolution is natural selection acting on random genetic variation") and what he calls the "theological" claim that evolution is an "unguided, unplanned" process. "This," he asserts, "is the central misstep of Cardinal Schönborn's article."

Let us assume for the moment that I indeed made a mistake. Is there any excuse, any basis for my error? Barr, treating Darwinism with great delicacy, says nothing. But there is much he could have said. He could have listed quotations from Darwinian scientists going on dozens of pages in which they make such "theological" assertions, in bold and completely unqualified ways, assertions that evolution by means of random variation and natural selection is an unguided, unplanned process.

Many of those assertions are in textbooks and scientific journals, not just in popular writings. I will leave it to others to compile a complete account of such quotations. I made a small contribution of three quotations in my recent catechesis on creation and evolution in the cathedral church of St. Stephen's in Vienna. Here is one of those three examples, a quotation from the American scientist Will Provine: "Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with deterministic principles or chance. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces rationally detectable".

Barr argues that such "theological" claims are separable from a more modest science of neo-Darwinism. I agree that there is a difference between a modest science of Darwinism and the broader metaphysical claims frequently made on its behalf. But which of those two is more properly called "neo-Darwinism" in an unqualified way, as I did in my essay?

For now, I happily concede that a metaphysically modest version of neo-Darwinism could potentially be compatible with the philosophical truth (and thus Catholic teaching) about nature. If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes' and Bacon's project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise. It is obviously compatible with the full truth that the world of living beings is replete with formality and finality. It comes as no surprise that reductionist science cannot recognize those very aspects of reality that it excludes -or at least, seeks to exclude- by its choice of method.

But how successful is modern biology, seeking to be true to its founding principles, at excluding the rational consideration of final cause? One way to grasp this problem is to examine the question of "randomness" and the role it plays in modern evolutionary biology.

The notion of "randomness" is obviously of great importance. The technical error at the heart of my analysis of neo-Darwinism, says Barr, is my misunderstanding of how the term "random" as used by Darwinian biology. "If the word 'random' necessarily entails the idea that some events are 'unguided' in the sense of falling 'outside the bounds of divine providence,' we should have to condemn as incompatible with Christian faith a great deal of modern physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy, as well as biology," he wrote.

This is absurd, of course. The word "random" as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated. My children like to observe the license plates of the cars that pass us on the highway, to see which states they are from. The sequence of states exhibits a degree of randomness: a car from Kentucky, then New Jersey, then Florida, and so on -because the cars are uncorrelated: knowing where one car comes from tells us nothing about where the next one comes from. And yet, each car comes to that place at that time for a reason. Each trip is planned, eachguided by some map and some schedule.

I certainly agree with much of what Barr says, and I appreciate his delightful example. I would like to suggest, however, that he may be overlooking something when it comes to modern biology. First of all, we must observe that the role of randomness in Darwinian biology is quite different from its role in thermodynamics, quantum theory, and other natural sciences. In those sciences randomness captures our inability to predict or know the precise behaviour of the parts of a system (or perhaps, in the case of the quantum world, some intrinsic properties of the system). But in all such cases the "random" behavior of parts is embedded in and constrained by a deeply mathematical and precise conceptual structure of the whole that makes the overall behavior of the system orderly and intelligible.

The randomness of neo-Darwinian biology is nothing like that. It is simply random. The variation through genetic mutation is random. And natural selection is also random: The properties of the ever-changing environment that drive evolution through natural selection arealso not correlated to anything, according to the Darwinists. Yet out of all that unconstrained, unintelligible mess emerges, deus ex machina, the precisely ordered and extraordinarily intelligible world of living organisms. And this is the heart of the neo-Darwinian science of biology.

Be that as it may, let us return to and extend Barr's license plate example and see what we might learn. Suppose the Barr family sets out on a trip southward from their home in Delaware -and, while hearing a brief introductory lecture on the proper meaning of randomness, the children start writing down the state of each passing license plate. After hours have passed, the children, pausing at their work, provide the following report: While each individual car's license plate does indeed seem uncorrelated to the previous and next, or to anything in the immediate environment, there may nevertheless be a pattern in the data. At first, almost all the license plates were from Delaware. A little later the majority shifted to Maryland. A few hours after that there was a big upswing of District of Columbia plates, mixing in near-equal proportion to the Maryland plates. A short time later the majority became Virginia plates. Now they see a dramatic shift to North Carolina plates. Is there a pattern here? Is there a reason one can think of for that pattern?

The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term "random." But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don't know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.

Some may object: This is a pure tautology, not scientific knowledge. I have assumed the conclusion, "rigged the game," and so forth. But that is not true. I have simply related two indisputable facts: Evolution happened (or so we will presume, for purposes of this analysis), and our present biosphere is the result. The two sets of facts correlate perfectly. Facts are not tautologies simply because they are indisputably true. If the modern biologist chooses to ignore this indubitable correlation, I have no objection. He is free to define his special science on terms as narrow as he finds useful for gaining a certain kind of knowledge. But he may not then turn around and demand that the rest of us, unrestricted by his methodological self-limitation, ignore obvious truths about reality, such as the clearly teleological nature of evolution.

Let us return to a telling word of Barr. He refers to my allegedly over-broad understanding of neo-Darwinism as an unwarranted extension of the theory into the realm of "theology. Does his use of that term mean that we can only know that teleology is real in the world of living beings by reference to revealed truth? Does it mean that unaided human reason cannot grasp the evident order, purpose, and intelligence manifested so clearly in the world of living beings? Does it mean that we worship an unjust God who, as Romans 1:19-20 teaches, punishes people for their failure to abide by natural law, a law St. Paul says they cannot fail to recognize through the manifest order in the nature world?

Barr's essay addresses at some length the question of design in biology, but does not clearly affirm that reason can grasp the reality of design without the aid of faith. If my reading is correct (and I hope I am wrong), in that respect Barr has followed the overwhelming trend of Catholic commentators on the question of neo-Darwinian evolution, who gladly discuss its compatibility with the truths of faithbut seldom bother to discuss whether and how it is compatible with the truths of reason.

Perhaps now that the role of fideism is in view, I can profitably return to the question of the essential meaning of the term "neo-Darwinism". If, as many seem to think, neo-Darwinism serves as a valid "design-defeating hypothesis" at the level of human reason but is rescued from any ultimately improper conclusions only by the intervention of theology, then it seems that my expansive definition is fully vindicated. If reason is incapable of grasping real teleology in living things and their history, then neo-Darwinism -which obviously is incapable of taking into account theological truths- can truly be said to be a theory that asserts, in the words of my original essay, that evolution is "an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection." What so many Catholics seem to be saying is that, so far as we can determine with our unaided human intellects, according to even the "metaphysically modest" version of neo-Darwinism, there is no real plan, purpose, or design in living things, and absolutely no directionality to evolution; yet we know those things to be true by faith. In other words, a "metaphysically modest" neo-Darwinism is not so modest after all. It means a Darwinism that does not conflict with knowledge about reality known through faith alone. In the discussion about design in nature, sola fides takes on an entirely new meaning.

Modern science alone may well be incapable of grasping the key truths about nature that are woven into the fabric of Catholic theology and morality. And theology proper does not supply these key truths either. Prior to both science and theology is philosophy, the "science of common experience. Its role in these crucial matters is indispensable.

Let us return to the heart of the problem: positivism. Modern science first excludes a priori final and formal causes, then investigates nature under the reductive mode of mechanism (efficient and material causes), and then turns around to claim both final and formal causes are obviously unreal, and also that its mode of knowing the corporeal world takes priority over all other forms of human knowledge. Being mechanistic, modern science is also historicist: It argues that a complete description of the efficient and material causal history of an entity is a complete explanation of the entity itself -in other words, that an understanding of how something came to be is the same as understanding what it is. But Catholic thinking rejects the genetic fallacy applied to the natural world and contains instead a holistic understanding of reality based on all the faculties of reason and all the causes evident in nature -including the "vertical" causation of formality and finality.

Some may object that my original small essay in the New York Times was misleading because it was too easily misunderstood as an argument about the details of science. As a matter of fact, I expected some initial misunderstanding. Even had it been possible to state in a thousand words a highly qualified and nuanced statement about the relations among modern science, philosophy, and theology, the essay would likely have been dismissed as "mere philosophy," with no standing to challenge the hegemony of scientism. It was crucially important to communicate a claim about design in nature that was in no way inferior to a "scientific" (in the modern sense) argument. Indeed, my argument was superior to a "scientific" argument since it was based on more certain and enduring truths and principles.

The modern world badly needs to hear this message. What frequently passes for modern science -with its heavy accretion of materialism and positivism- is simply wrong about nature in fundamental ways. Modern science is often, in the words of my essay, "ideology, not science". The problems caused by positivism are especially acute in the broad anti-teleological implications drawn from Darwin's theory of evolution, which has become (in the phrase of Pope Benedict XVI, writing some years ago) the new "first philosophy" of the modern world, a total and foundational description of reality that goes far beyond a proper grounding in the descriptive and reductive science on which it is based. My essay was designed to awaken Catholics from their dogmatic slumber about positivism in general and evolutionism in particular. It appears to have worked.

(In next month's issue of First Things, Stephen Barr returns with a general essay on Intelligent Design.)

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn is archbishop of Vienna and general publisher of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.