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Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Patrick Coulton

Important points made by Cardinal Schoenborn:

1) He does not rule out common ancestory (though I would claim that what is meant by this is often misunderstood). The depiction of creation in Genesis (2:7) is that man was made out of the mud of the Earth (i.e. man has a physical nature). If man is made out of apes and apes are made of mud then man is still made out of mud.

2) The scientific method can not be used to disprove the existence of the Creator, though this seems to be the only objective of the ideology of evolution.

3) To paraphrase JPII: the beauty of the Earth gives testimony to the existence of God. The main pupose of culture and science is to find order in the chaos. Darwin saw order in natural selection. Information science seeks to find order in choas by outlining other laws that lead to the ends of creation. This seems to make some people apoplectic, since the idea of rational creation might lead some to suggest that JPII's idea is the right one.

Mark Brumley

Good points, Carl.

There remains some ambiguity about the issue of whether "design" is detectable. Catholics are obliged, as a matter of dogma, to believe that the existence of God can be known by human reason's reflection on creation. This was taught by St. Paul in Romans 1 and dogmatically defined by the First Vatican Council.

(Although St. Thomas' "Five Ways" are widely respected in Catholicism and even referred to in the Catechism, Catholics are not obliged to believe these particular arguments prove God's existence. They are obliged, however, to believe God's existence can be known, not simply believed.)

What is not clear is whether, as a matter of fact, "design" is scientifically detectable or whether this is a philosophical inference. Obviously, where one stands on that subject depends on one's definition of science and one's understanding of philosophical knowledge.

It is possible that human life was "designed" and that science can determine it to have been. ID theorists point to things such as Mount Rushmore as evidence that we can scientifically distinguish undesigned things from designed things. Whether such discernment is "scientific" discernment or more broadly rational (philosophical) discernment is hotly debated.

Whether design is in any way detectable in human life is also hotly debated, with Catholic thinkers usually holding that we can at least say that those scientists who on the basis of their scientific expertise alone say that human life was not design, go beyond their expertise to make philosophical ascertions that are not only contestable but false.

It is also possible that human life was "designed" and that science can't tell us, while philosophy (and of course theology) can. In such a scenario, the process by which human life came about will seem to scientists to be indistinguishable from an unguided process. Scientists may even speak of "random" genetic mutations as being part of the mix (along with natural selection) in the process by which human life emerged. The fact that science does not detect purpose would not mean no purpose exists. This would only point to a limitation of science.

("Random" in science isn't necessarily the same as "uncaused", nor is such "randomness" incompatible with divine purpose and divine causality.)

The debate about Intelligent Design is as much a debate about the nature and limits of science as it is about the origin of human life and of biological diversity. It is unfortunate that for so many in the media the philosophical opinions of scientists are presented as if they possessed the weight of scientific expertise. This was, in part, what caused Cardinal Schönborn to write his NYT piece in the first place.

Robin L. in TX

You mean (gasp) that the Catholic Church believes that God created the world AND reason, and is unafraid of seeking Truth through science? What a novel idea! Truth that exists outside of mankind's constructs...


[ n.b. I am not familiar with the particulars of Dembski's work, but this is probably the wrong forum to discuss the scientific merits or demerits of a particular theory anyway. For the moment, I'm going to assume it does have scientific merit. ]

The problem is that Dembski's work (and more nebulous ideas also under the banner of "Intelligent Design") are being pushed in schools by people (Protestants, but also some New Age types, etc) with religious agendas that are not tempered by the authentic teaching of the Church. They look to science to support their theology.

Hence, rather than waiting for the theory to stand on its own merits and be well-evaluated and refined scientifically over decades, they are trying to short-circuit the process and have contemporary theories taught in schools as if they had equal weight with theories that have been tested and refined for more than a century.

That is why Dembski's work is reflexively treated with more than the usual scepticism in scientific circles. It would be a shame, actually, if it were not ultimately given serious scientific evaluation merely because of that...

Patrick Coulton

Perhaps the problem in this discussion is the use of the phrase "Intellegent Design'. The term 'intellegent' is often used in computer science( or information science ) to indicate a set of rules (algorithm) which are flexible enough to adapt to different situations in a given programming scheme e.g. Artificial Intellegence.

That the universe displays a design (IMHO) is without doubt as long as we can agree as to what design means.

Biologists refer to DNA as a blueprint and that is not
an idle metaphore. The entire 'design of an animal' is
encoded in their DNA.

The growth patterns of many plants follow a simple algorithmic process related to the theory of automata (S. Wolfram has based an entire science on this simple concept of design)

The list of clear design features in creation is almost endless.

To go from the question of design to the question of the Designer means that we must move from science to philosophy.

Carl Olson

MenTaLguY wrote: "Hence, rather than waiting for the theory to stand on its own merits and be well-evaluated and refined scientifically over decades, they are trying to short-circuit the process and have contemporary theories taught in schools as if they had equal weight with theories that have been tested and refined for more than a century." That's a good point to ponder and I do wish I had the background and knowledge, scientifically, to address it with some intelligence.

However, from a cultural standpoint, it appears to me that there are a couple of problems. One is that in common parlance people continue to use the term "evolution" as though there is only one type of evolution and that that it is fact, not theory. But what they are usually referring to is some sort of Darwinian evolution, which is, from what I can tell, a mixture of some fact and much theory. And yet the theory (which includes the philosophical/religious presuppositions that there is no God and that everything came into being by accident, etc.) is often taught in schools — I'm thinking here mostly of high schools and undergrad programs — as though it were fact.

The second problem, it seems to me, is that Intelligent Design (ID) whatever its merits or faults, will possibly never get a fair evaluation from many, important sectors of society, especially from the education establishment, for the simple reason that many of its proponents are Christian. I suppose that a cynical perspective would be that what we have is a philosophical/religious war between atheists and theists being fought, not in the philosophical/religious arena, but in the scientific arena. So, while the tactics of the supporters of ID might seem bothersome, I think they are understandable in many ways.

What Cardinal Schoenborn appears to be saying (and which I would agree with) is that those forms of evolution that can be scientifically verified by science — not scientism — are not and cannot be in contradiction to a theistic account for the material universe. Sadly, this simply but logical perspective is almost completely lost on the MSM, the larger culture, the education establishment, and the cultural elite.

Patrick Coulton

The idea of design in evolution is probably more important to future science than the idea of natural selection or random mutations.

The problem for biologists is that they are generally not well educated in engeneering and mathematics and so
can not judge the principles of design from the scientific standpoint.


Patrick: actually I think it's the word "design" that leads to confusion -- it has strongly teleological connotations.

Certainly Schoenborn explicitly equated it with "purpose" in his original editoral:

"Note that in this quotation the word 'finality' is a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose or design." (Schoenborn in the NYT)

Did you mean "The idea of [purpose] in evolution is probably more important to future science than the idea of natural selection or random mutations"?

If not, realize that is how the average person is going to understand it. Is there a reason to avoid more philosophically neutral terms like "structure" or "pattern"?

Patrick Coulton

Actually I mean design. When we study the design
of evolution we begin to understand how biology
really works and the important ways that it can
be adapted to help people. I don't think that
those scientists that are engaged in fossil
recovery and polemics are interested in how
design analysis will improve our understanding
of biology.

I have spent a few hours this afternoon reading some
of the literature of the ID people and their critics.

The thing that strikes me is that there is no meeting
of the minds, i.e. the arguments are too often
strawman arguments and snide remarks posing
as disinterested scientific analysis.

Jerry Coyne writes in The New Republic, but he
seems more interested in disproving the existence of
God than in understanding the importance of design
in biology.

His main theses are:

1) See! these people believe in God so they must be wrong.

2) God can not have created the world because there
are sooo many species that have turned up extinct
( this is in his paper, but it is a completely
illogical argument)

3) If God created man, then a fetus would not grow
hair that falls out before birth (again the
two statements can not be easily connected by
any logical train of thought)

I think his point is that creation by God should follow some principle of least energy or least action. Why this is he does not tell us.


"Actually I mean design."

Sorry to do this, but I'm really not clear what you mean. In what sense of the word?

WordNet: design (n)
1: the act of working out the form of something (as by making a sketch or outline or plan) [syn: designing]
2: an arrangement scheme [syn: plan]
3: something intended as a guide for making something else [syn: blueprint, pattern]
4: a decorative or artistic work [syn: pattern, figure]
5: an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides your planned actions [syn: purpose, intent, intention, aim]
6: a preliminary sketch indicating the plan for something
7: the creation of something in the mind [syn: invention, innovation, excogitation, conception]

(I'd personally have listed pattern as a synonym for the second definition, but maybe that's just me... regardless, if you have another definition from a better dictionary in mind, feel free to point that out instead)

On a separate note, I think you put your finger on something important:

"I think his point is that creation by God should follow some principle of least energy or least action. Why this is he does not tell us."

This is essential nature of the atheist argument-from-nature in general, actually: the human tendency to impose arbitrary conditions on God so they can (they think) justifiably ignore Him.

Carl Olson

"This is essential nature of the atheist argument-from-nature in general, actually: the human tendency to impose arbitrary conditions on God so they can (they think) justifiably ignore Him." Yes! Absolutely the case. A few years ago I had a running correspondence with the founder of the local "Atheists and Freethinkers Society." After about three or four letters, he wrote, "I never said that I didn't believe in _a_ god, just not in _your_God." So much for being an "atheist." As Chesterton rightly observed, if there was no God, there would be no atheists...

Patrick Coulton

Design certainly in the sense of blueprint when we
talk about things like DNA. And BTW genic
inheritance (and in particular recessive traits) was
first demonstrated by an Austrian Monk. n.b. his work
was ignored by biologist who apparently
were more interested in questions of natural selection.

2) A scheme in the sense that we are talking about a
set of simple rules that allow directed variation
(e.g. natural selection, leaf distribution patterns etc.)

3) Artistic in the sense that the world is beautiful.

4) For a person of faith the 'intended purpose' to
create man: a being so different from the rest.

I would say that just about everything you have listed applies.


With the caveat that we are probably drifting off-topic for this forum...

1) Augustinian Brother Gregor Mendel (later Abbot). The conflict was not between natural selection and Mendel's work, but between Mendel's results and then-popular Lamarckian theories of heredity. Once Lamarck's ideas were abandoned, it was the successful synthesis of natural selection with Mendel's laws of heredity in the early 20th century that yielded modern evolutionary theory.

2) This is an important focus in the field of evolutionary biology.

Given that we're talking specifically about "design" in "The idea of design in evolution is probably more important to future science than the idea of natural selection or random mutations," however:

3) Are aesthetics a legitimate object of scientific inquiry?

4) Similarly, is theology a legitimate object of scientific inquiry?


While I am not a scientist and am only an amature theologian the problem I see with the evolutionary veiw that is gaining acceptance in the churches is that it fails to acknowledge the fullness of God. It would seem that the churches have adopted the view that God is a local being that is subject to the cosmos and not the being described by Saint Paul in Acts 17: 28. 28 for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. It seems that the doubt planted in the minds of the church theologians is that evolution is needed because God is unable.


Card. Schönborn made a clear statement that many people found difficult to digest. Now he has watered it down, we're told, but it doesn't smell like the original dish, and frankly we're not quite sure what he did to it.

Instead of publishing a follow-up in the New York Times or a simiar public forum, has simply made publicly available the transcript of a lecture he gave in German. All you have to do is fly to Vienna, find your way to his Chancery, stutter through your German phrasebook and you'll get the lengthy German-language document that you can take to a couple of professional translators, pay them hundreds of dollars, and assume that the true meaning lies somewhere in the middle of their English products. Or we just can take Reuters's word for it (ba-dum-pum-*cymbal*).

This is a clarification?

My respect for the coordinator of the Catechism as an expositor of Catholicism just hit the floor.

Ah, here's the online version in German. Perhaps we'll start seeing unofficial mistranslations in a few days which will roam forever around the Internet to be selectively quoted by partisans. Meanwhile, what do we tell inquirers about the Church's teaching on evolution? Is Church doctrine about to evolve, so to speak? Should Catholics be wary of involving themselves in explorations of neo-Darwinist theory (efforts to explain the origins of life in terms of random biochemical processes)?


Joe: Is there a reason to suppose that having a physical description of a process would exclude God's agency? It seems that such a view would also serve to limit one's idea of God.

For example:

Our ability to watch the development of a tree from the moment a seed is planted to its maturity does not falsify the statement that "God created this tree", any more than the ability of modern reproductive science to observe and describe in detail the development of a human being from conception to birth invalidates Jeremiah 1:5 or Psalms 139:13.

The Church teaches that the universe and its laws depend wholly on God, whereas He is neither limited by nor dependant on them.

God as Creator is actively involved in the unfolding of the universe, both through acts of special creation, and creation through the natural laws which He has established (of which our scientific "laws" are mere imperfect descriptions).

He is not required to do the latter, but in the case of (for example) a tree growing from a seed it is evident that He normally choses to do so.

It would be a shame to lose the child-like faith that allows us to see God's creative hand even in something so simple as the growth of a tree or the falling of an apple.

Given this, it should not matter much whether most creative acts are "special" or "developmental". As far as I can tell, the cases where it matters theologically have already been established; we are taught, for example, that human souls are created in God's image as acts of special creation.

Under those circumstances, particular evolutionary theories (provided they don't try to make inappropriate theological assertions, which is the line the Church draws) are neither in conflict with theology nor are they required by it.

At least that is my view as Catholic. Am I missing something?


seamole: well, to start with, one should probably place higher priority on the Catechism and papal statements (c.f. John Paul II's address "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth", and encyclicals like "Humani Generis" and "Providentissimus Deus") than on either an NYT op-ed or private lecture by an individual bishop.

But as far as I can tell the Church is reserving any scientific judgement, and speaking only to underscore that if a particular theory of evolution has a theological component that contradicts the teaching of the Church, it is not acceptable (and also not proper science, since science should not attempt to make theological statements).

This teaching doesn't apply only to evolutionary theories in science, nor is it new (Leo XIII quotes liberally from Aquinas and Augustine in the relevent portions of his encyclical).


I have read Dembski's books on ID, and I agree with him...Darwinism is materialistic in its approach, ID is very Christian, and I appreciate the mathematical support as evidence.


Mr. Olson, a biologist would warn you to avoid calling intelligent design a "theory" in the scientific sense. Much weight is placed on that term in scientific circles. Evolution is a "theory", relativity is a "theory", but theories are only called "theories" when they have been widely accepted.

Carl Olson

Hyphen: Thanks for the comment. I do realize that the word "theory" is understood in a much more strict fashion within the scientific realm. However, it also seems obvious to me that if I, a layman with very modest scientific knowledge, were to bow to every concern of the biologist, geologist, astronomer, et al, in discussing this with people who are almost all non-specialists, I would be able to only say the following: " Ummmmmmmm...well......hmmmmm..." Put another way, I think my general point is valid, regardless of what a specialist might say.

I am curious about the remark, "Evolution is a 'theory', relativity is a 'theory', but theories are only called "theories" when they have been widely accepted." Widely accepted by whom? Biologists, I presume. But what if most biologists won't even consider ID as a theory because it has been unfairly pinned with a "Fundamentalist" or "Christian" label? Or are biologists — like journalists (insert laughter here) — impervious to political pressures?


Carl: in principle, to become a well-accepted theory, a scientific hypothesis must:

1. fit existing data

2. be falsifiable (i.e. it is possible to devise a repeatable test or observation which would prove the hypothesis false, depending on its outcome)

3. have survived many such tests (often requiring refinement of the initial hypothesis)

4. have predictive utility (i.e. you can utilise its principles to make accurate statements like "under X conditions, Y will happen")

5. satisfy the above criteria better than any directly competing hypothesis

Scientists of any stripe are not immune to bias (c.f. the earlier bit about Lamarck versus Mendel -- still, it's important to remember that Mendel eventually won due to the persistent application of the above principles), but generally the objection I hear from biologists to ID as a scientific theory is that (so far) it has only met the first of the above criteria at best.

Of particular note, the second criterion ("falsifiability") is generally considered the dividing line between natural science and metaphysics.


(note that I am not familiar enough with the particulars of Dembski's work to say whether those biologists are right or not)

Patrick Coulton

Why is it presummed that the only real knowledge is scientific (physical/material). (c.f. the corpus of works by Mortimer Adler -Ten Philisophical Mistakes etc.)

I'll ask a simple question: Does such a thing as a circle exist?

If so where? Is it part of the physical universe? If not part of the physical universe, how can it exist? If it doesn't exist why do we study circles? Simple utility?

Is the circle a theory?

It is well known that Kurt Goedel proved that even simple mathematical theories could not be shown to be logically consistent (e.g. you can not prove that plane geometry is consistent logically) Thus all of Newtonian physics is based on a theory that may not be consistent!

Patrick Coulton


There is some evidence that genes can be turned 'on' and 'off' which may mean that there is a Lamarckian element in the transfer of developed traits to progeny (Sins of the father?)

I mention it only as a possiblity, not as a fact.

Patrick Coulton

Re: the list for determining the viability of a theory it seems (IMHO) that idea that natural selection alone explains all variations fails

2) It is not really falsifiable (In Jerry Coyne's article in The New Republic he claims that a fossil of a man found in the age of dinasours would be a test which would falsify, but such a find would only mean that some hominoid had evolved at that time by the existing theory and then either disappeared or was extremely rare.)

3) There are no laboratory type tests that I know of that shows variation to new species.

4) Here natural selection can only verify what is in the fossil record and then claim to have predicted it by explaining the development much like a Monday morning quarterback (and by the way scientists can not really show that mutation is not more important than selection). They avoid mutation questions in public disputations because they appear to be more 'creative' than automatic and it seems that the main objective is to disprove the existence of God.

5) Most experts seem to think that mutations can not be ruled out and there is some at least laboratory evidence that mutations are effective in creating large scale variation.

Your witness.

Mark Brumley

"Card. Schönborn made a clear statement that many people found difficult to digest. Now he has watered it down, we're told, but it doesn't smell like the original dish, and frankly we're not quite sure what he did to it," writes seamole above.

But Cardinal Schönborn has not watered down his NYT piece. The transcript is the first of a series of catechetical lectures he is giving in Austria, where after all he is the cardinal archbishop. The press picked up on that and reported on it.

As for what we tell people about the Church's teaching on evolution, the original NYT piece was clear enough. One can also consult Pope John Paul II's teaching on the subject, to which Cardinal Schönborn referred in his NYT piece.

I don't see any "evolution" in teaching since John Paul II's statements.

Kirk Kuykendall

For ID advocates, you might be interested in the current issue of the Texas Catholic, diocesan paper for the Diocese of Dallas, where the editor "blasts" anyone who argues for ID as intellectually unscientific.

Chris Austin

Charles Krauthammer's got something for all of you:

Phony Theory, False Conflict
‘Intelligent Design’ Foolishly Pits Evolution Against Faith

Because every few years this country, in its infinite tolerance, insists on hearing yet another appeal of the Scopes monkey trial, I feel obliged to point out what would otherwise be superfluous: that the two greatest scientists in the history of our species were Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and they were both religious.

Newton’s religion was traditional. He was a staunch believer in Christianity and a member of the Church of England. Einstein’s was a more diffuse belief in a deity who set the rules for everything that occurs in the universe.

Neither saw science as an enemy of religion. On the contrary. “He believed he was doing God’s work,” James Gleick wrote in his recent biography of Newton. Einstein saw his entire vocation — understanding the workings of the universe — as an attempt to understand the mind of God.

Not a crude and willful God who pushes and pulls and does things according to whim. Newton was trying to supplant the view that first believed the sun’s motion around the earth was the work of Apollo and his chariot, and later believed it was a complicated system of cycles and epicycles, one tacked upon the other every time some wobble in the orbit of a planet was found. Newton’s God was not at all so crude. The laws of his universe were so simple, so elegant, so economical and therefore so beautiful that they could only be divine.

Which brings us to Dover, Pa., Pat Robertson, the Kansas State Board of Education, and a fight over evolution that is so anachronistic and retrograde as to be a national embarrassment.

Dover distinguished itself this Election Day by throwing out all eight members of its school board who tried to impose “intelligent design” — today’s tarted-up version of creationism — on the biology curriculum. Pat Robertson then called the wrath of God down upon the good people of Dover for voting “God out of your city.” Meanwhile, in Kansas, the school board did a reverse Dover, mandating the teaching of skepticism about evolution and forcing intelligent design into the statewide biology curriculum.

Let’s be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge — in this case, evolution — they are to be filled by God. It is a “theory” that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, “I think I’ll make me a lemur today.” A “theory” that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science — that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution — or behind the motion of the tides or the “strong force” that holds the atom together?

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase ” natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” thus unmistakably implying — by fiat of definition, no less — that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an “unguided process” with no “discernible direction or goal.” This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an “unguided process” by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an “unguided process” of molecular interactions without “purpose”? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

He may be, of course. But that discussion is the province of religion, not science. The relentless attempt to confuse the two by teaching warmed-over creationism as science can only bring ridicule to religion, gratuitously discrediting a great human endeavor and our deepest source of wisdom precisely about those questions — arguably, the most important questions in life — that lie beyond the material.

How ridiculous to make evolution the enemy of God. What could be more elegant, more simple, more brilliant, more economical, more creative, indeed more divine than a planet with millions of life forms, distinct and yet interactive, all ultimately derived from accumulated variations in a single double-stranded molecule, pliable and fecund enough to give us mollusks and mice, Newton and Einstein? Even if it did give us the Kansas State Board of Education, too.

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