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No. 128 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 2007


by John F. McCarthy

1. In a short article published in the July 7, 2005, issue of The New York Times, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, an internationally known theologian and philosopher who was also the general secretary of the pontifical commission that composed the Catechism of the Catholic Church, states it to be the teaching of the Catholic Church that “the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.” While acknowledging that biological evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, he declares that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, which proposes the rise of living species as “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection,” is not true. Noting that some neo-Darwinians have sought to portray Pope Benedict XVI as a “satisfied evolutionist,” on the ground that, as Cardinal Ratzinger, this pope had presided over the International Theological Commission at the time when it published a 2004 document which seemed to profess no difficulty with neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, Schönborn points out that the same document actually cautioned against the neo-Darwinian approach, especially because this theory projects “an unguided evolutionary process – one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence,” a picture which, said the document, “simply cannot exist.” The Catholic Church, he concludes, faced in this 21st century with claims like neo-Darwinism and the hypothesis of many universes invented to offset “the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science,” will rise again to “defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real.”

2. In a reply to Cardinal Schönborn's New York Times article, published in the October 2005 issue of First Things, Dr. Stephen M. Barr, a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the Univer­sity of Delaware, well-known writer, and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, wonders why a representative of the Catholic Church should undertake to disturb the “neutral stance” customarily taken by the Church in all “intramural scientific disputes” by seeking to condemn a scientific theory and by raising in an inadequately short article the extremely subtle question of the relation of chance and randomness to divine providence. Barr avers that Schönborn has slipped into the definition of a scientific theory, namely, neo-Darwinism, the words unplanned and unguided, which, he says, “are fraught with theological meaning.” Dr. Barr points out that the word random, as used by biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians in their technical work, does not have the same meaning as the words unguided and unplanned, when the latter are used in doctrinal statements of the Church, although, he admits, some biologists, in addressing statements to the general public or to students, argue from the ‘randomness’ of genetic mutations to the philo­soph­ical conclusion that the history of life is ‘unguided’ and ‘unplanned.’ In most branches of science, he explains, the term random is employed to describe things like the motions of molecules in a gas, the fluctu­ations of quantum fields, noise in electronic devices, and the statistical errors in a data set. In other words, he notes, “the word random as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated.” Hence, he argues, if the word random is taken necessarily to mean that some events are unguided and lie outside of 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.”1

3. Barr goes on to observe that for thousands of years people have been using the words random, chance, and probability without always implying the absence of divine providence, for instance in Eccles­iastes 9:11: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.” While Schönborn quotes Communion and Stewardship as declaring that Pope John Paul II's 1996 letter on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Science did not extend approbation to those theories of neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny the role of divine providence in the development of life, Barr points out that the same document also says that “true contingency in the created order is not in­compatible with a purposeful divine providence,” inasmuch as “divine causality and created causality radi­cally differ in kind and not only in degree.” Hence, continues the document, “neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science,” for the reason that “divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided,” with the result that “any evolutionary mechanism that is contin­gent can only be contingent because God made it so.”2 In effect, Barr concludes, what this document is criticizing is not neo-Darwinists as such, but only those “many neo-Darwinian scientists” who make the philosophical error of seeing the evolutionary process as being absolutely unguided.3

4. Cardinal Schönborn recalls in his New York Times article that, in a 1985 general audience, Pope John Paul II remarked: “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.” John Paul went on to say: “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.” Schönborn notes that in this quotation the word finality is a philosophical term synonymous with final cause, purpose, or design.

5. To this quotation Barr counters that the employment in science of arguments based upon statistical randomness and probabil­ity does not necessarily mean to oppose the idea of chance to the existence of God the Creator. To Barr the production by an evolutionary process of the marvelously intricate forms that we see presupposes the exis­tence of a universe “whose structure, matter, processes, and laws are of a special character,” and in addition “each of us has spiritual powers of intellect, rationality, and freedom that cannot be accounted for by mere biology.” Barr is not personally convinced that the neo-Darwinian framework is a sufficient one for biological science, but he does believe that, if it should turn out to be sufficient, that would not make us “casual and meaningless products of evolution.” His overall conclusion is that Cardinal Schönborn, while he understandably intended to counter those neo-Darwinian backers who claim that evol­ution rules out any providential guidance of a Creator, unfortunately “ended up giving credibility to their claim and obscuring the clear teaching of the Church that no truth of science can contradict the truth of rev­elation."4

6. Cardinal Schönborn, in a response to Dr. Barr published in the January 2006 issue of First Things, said that his intention was not to interfere in an intramural scientific dispute, but rather to point out a deficiency in the philosophical aspects of the question and “to awaken Catholics from their dogmatic slumber about positivism in general and evolutionism in particular.”5 He had quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the effect that “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” (CCC 286, 295). The ability to know of the existence of God, he adds, antecedes the gift of faith, as Rom 1:19-20 makes clear.6 But in the reductionist approach of modern science today the design that exists in the formal and final causes of natural things is purposely excluded, in spite of the ability of the human intellect to grasp these intelligible realities. According to this reductionist approach, the Cardinal observes, philosophy is reduced to the status of a meta-narrative containing no positive knowledge of its own, whereas, in truth, it is the science of common experience which provides our most fundamental and most certain grasp of reality. Unfortunately, some modern scientists have for­gotten that “the study of reality via reductive methods” leads to incomplete knowledge of reality. Barr speaks of a more modest form of neo-Darwinism that, while it does not include formal and final causes within its purview and, therefore, “can see no organizing, active principles of the whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose, or design in living things (final causes), yet does not conclude that evolution is an unguided, unplanned process.” But immense is the number of statements by neo-Darwinian scientists, even in textbooks and scientific journals, who do boldly assert that evolution by means of random variation and natural selection is an unguided, unplanned process. And also today, the Cardinal continues, a certain spirit-matter dualism has come to dominate Christian thinking about reality, that is, “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).”7

7. It is Barr's contention that, while some biologists do argue to the false philosophical conclusion that the history of life is unguided and unplanned, the word “random,” as used more generally by biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians in their technical work, does not have this meaning, and this “statistical randomness” can be used to explain phenomena through the employment of probability theory.8 And, he adds, the 2004 document of the International Theological Commission referred to by Schönborn also declares that, contrary to what many neo-Darwinian scientists have concluded, “even the outcome of a purely contingent natural process can, nevertheless, fall within God's providential plan for creation.”9 Hence, he observes, when the Commission says that these neo-Darwinists “are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science,”10 it is clearly the intention of the ITC to distinguish sharply between “the actual hypotheses of legitimate science” and “the philosophical errors often mistakenly thought to follow from them.”11

8. REMARKS. This is a lively exchange on an important issue between two highly qualified persons. In his outstandingly knowledgeable and carefully constructed reply to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's New York Times article, Dr. Stephen Barr argues that the expression “random mutation” in neo-Darwinian biological theory does not necessarily mean “unplanned” and “unguided” in the theological sense, as Cardinal Schönborn maintains. And Barr effectively adduces the (non-magisterial) teaching of the International Theological Commission in Communion and Stewardship (no. 69), a source that Schönborn had quoted in his own favor, to the effect that “true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence,” because divine providence can ordain some things to happen from contingency, and so “any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.”12 However, the ITC was not affirming the validity of the neo-Darwinian theory. In the same paragraph, the document questions whether the available data do support inferences of chance, and it notes that “a growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design.” In fact, as of Feb­ruary 2007 over 700 scientists had signed a statement prepared by the Seattle-based Center for Science and Culture opposing the neo-Darwinian tenets of random mutation and natural selection as the mechanism for the rise of biological species.13

9. Barr points out that, in most branches of science, the word “random” is used to discuss things like the motions of molecules in a gas, the fluctuations of quantum fields, noise in electronic devices, and statis­tical errors in a data set. But is there any valid inference from “random” occurrences on the sub-atomic level to the supposedly random occurrence of biological species? That the movement of molecules in a gas may sometimes be unpredictable and thus occurring by “chance” does not logically suggest that the emergence of mice and elephants may also occur by chance. When dealing with sub­stances of minimal complexity and having a minimum of substantial form, our ability to predict their actions may consequently also be minimal. But the discussion here is about highly complex organisms. It is not a valid inference to say that, if hydrogen can spontaneously become water, then, given enough time, it could also spontaneously become living organisms. Nor is it valid to conclude that, if no intelligent design can be discerned in rain­drops falling on a surface, therefore, there may be no intelligent design in more complex events, such as the emergence of a biological species. Schönborn is opposing the methodological error of scientism, which assumes that only the reductive purview of empirical science renders fully certified knowledge, while all other approaches, however satisfying some of them may be to the human spirit, produce only hearsay and opinion.

10. Barr does not make this error, but he seems here to be indirectly defending an erroneous approach that is not completely his own. Schönborn quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church as teaching that “God created the world according to His wisdom,” and the world is not “the product of any necessity what­ever, nor of blind fate or chance"”(CCC 295). Barr counters that to say that within the universe there is statistical randomness is not to say that the whole world is a product of chance.14 But, in terms of complex­ity, to say that biological species are a product of chance comes dangerously close to saying that the whole world is a product of chance. And Barr does not say this. He doesn’t oppose the idea of chance to the exis­tence of God the Creator, and he sees in many ways within the neo-Darwinian framework the presupposed existence of a universe “whose structure, matter, processes, and laws are of a special character,” as is verified by the many so-called anthropic coincidences which, he says, “have been identified by physicists and chemists.”15 Schönborn calls this a more modest and acceptable form of neo-Darwinism which leaves room for divine guidance but still sees no real plan, purpose, or design in living things. Barr does not see it this way; he accepts, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI that “we are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution;” and he avows that personally he is “not at all sure that the neo-Darwinian framework is a sufficient one for biology.”16

11. Barr maintains that, for neo-Darwinian theory in general, the use of the word “random” in “random mutations” does not necessarily mean unguided or unplanned (no. 2 above). But is this really true for most biologists and for most other people? In Schönborn's view, Barr is not defending mainline neo-Darwinism, but rather his own modest version, which “could potentially be compatible with the philo­sophical truth about nature.”17 Schönborn makes the point that the role of randomness in Darwinian biology “is quite different from its role in thermody­namics, quantum theory, and other natural sciences” where the “random” behavior of the parts “is embedded in and constrained by a deeply mathematical and precise conceptual structure,” whereas the randomness of Darwinian biology is “simply random, as is also its natural selection.”18 And this observation seems to be true. Barr opens up the question where he notes that some biologists, out of carelessness or from an anti-religious animus, “do argue from the ‘randomness’ of genetic mutations to the philosophical conclusion that the history of life is ‘unguided’ and ‘unplanned.’”19 Not only, but this seems to be the usual understanding of people in general. Webster's Third New Inter­national Dictionary, Unabridged Edition (2002) defines the word “random,” as “lacking or seeming to lack a regular plan, purpose, or pattern,” or “having the same probability of occurring as every other member of a set.” Does neo-Darwinian theory maintain that random genetic mutations only seem to lack a regular plan or purpose without implying that conclusion? Or, again, does neo-Darwinian theory allow that the process of biological evolution may ultimately have been planned to be unplanned? There may be a logical contra­diction here. Barr may be qualifying the use of the word where he refers to “statistical randomness” for certain molecular or sub-molecular events, but biologists generally seem to use the word without making any such clear restriction of meaning. What textbook of biology, what article on neo-Darwinian evolution, in constantly using the expression “random mutations,” points out for the sake of precision that the expression does not necessarily mean unguided or unplanned?

12. What about the “reductive approach” to empirical biology? Does an empirical biologist have to be thinking about overall design while he is doing his work? No, in general, but yes, in the sense that he is not entitled to exclude it. Barr's position is by no means restricted to the reductive approach to knowledge. He acknowledges the special creation by God of every human soul. And he, with the Church, rejects those atheistic and mater­ialistic philosophies of evolution which deny God's “providential governance of the world.”20 It is Schön­born's point, however, that the use of purely reductive methods in the study of reality leads to “incomplete knowledge.”21 The widespread reaction of neo-Darwinian biologists against the very suggestion of intelligent design as an element of biological knowledge shows that they are excluding it. And this is unreasonable. In fact, the broad mechanistic exclusion by the majority of biologists of the existence of intelligently designed living forms is a methodological approach that appears to be unreasonable and contrary to common experience

13. Barr's appeal to the distinction between “the actual hypotheses of legitimate science” and “the phil­o­sophical errors often mistakenly thought to follow from them” points to an error that runs through the whole controversy about evolution, because many popularizers of neo-Darwinian theory carry the valid empirical re­sults beyond what the facts warrant. It also raises the whole question of the validity of philosophy. Certainly, in modern times philosophical errors have abounded. But are there not also philosophical truths? Schönborn maintains that his argument is not based on modern science or on theology but rather on valid philosophy, which is “the science of common experience.” He affirms that it is the philosophical knowledge of reality that is most in need of defense in our time.22 So, while it has been claimed that the clash between “random mutation” and “intelligent design” cannot be resolved by theol­ogy, Schönborn maintains that it can be resolved in favor of design with the help of valid philosophy.

14. In his critical article, Barr does not go into detail on the question of philosophy, but in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,23 he argues in favor of the intelligent design of the universe, especially in opposition to the materialist approach to knowledge. He finds that “there is reason to believe, after all, that the world is the product of design, and that life is perhaps part of that design” (MPAF, p. 29). He reasons that the structure of the universe “may point to the God who designed it” (MPAF, p. 65). In fact, if, at the end of the road, the physical laws of the universe are proven to have a “symmetric structure,” then science really “has no alternative to offer” to the Argument from Cosmic Design for the existence of God (MPAF, p. 106). Hence, the Argument from Design of St. Thomas Aquinas “still stands” and “is stronger than ever before” (MPAF, p. 108).24 And to say that the ultimate laws of nature have evolved by a natural process of evolution is “self-contradictory” (MPAF, p. 107). We do live in a universe whose order, in the sense of observance of its mathematical rules, “is perfect, or nearly so” (MPAF, p. 108). And the structure of the laws of physics “cannot in the final analysis be explained by some kind of theory of natural selection” (MPAF, p. 109). Hence, science has not succeeded in completely accounting for the symmetrical structure of the universe without the need to invoke a designer (MPAF, p. 105). Similarly, Barr argues strongly against the material­ist approach to science. He maintains that materialism is an “anti-religious mythology” (MPAF, pp. 4-5). Materialists, he says, put blind and unreasonable trust in the false notion that the non-material is beyond the pale of rational discourse (MPAF, pp. 15-16, 116). In sum, materialism accepts only those facts that fit its preconceptions, while ignoring all the others (MPAF, p. 223). Barr cautions that he is not writing about proofs, but only that “recent discoveries have begun to confound the materialist's expectations,” and thus to corroborate the expectations of those who believe in God” (MPAF, p. 29). As Barr sees the matter, neither the view of the theist nor the view of the materialist “can be rigorously proven from the scientific facts,” but it is rather a question of “whose view is rendered more credible by the scientific facts” (MPAF, p. 144).

15. Accordingly, Barr's affirmation of intelligent design is qualified. While there is “reason to believe” that the world and living organisms are intelligently designed, and the structure of the universe “may point” to its having been designed by God, empirical science has not yet reached “the end of the road” in its search for the ultimate laws of the universe, and so its intelligent design is not a settled question (cf. the preceding paragraph). The debate continues regarding the place of man in the universe (MPAF, p. 25). In fact, he notes, the discovery of the “anthropic coincidences” has not ended the old debate between religion and materialism, but it has “dramatically changed the terms of the debate,” inasmuch as “evidence abounds” that man was built into the process of nature, and we now have to see whether this evidence “really means what it seems to mean” (MPAF, p. 117). Recognition of intelligent design is teleology, whereas, according to many accounts of the history of science, the Scientific Revolution took place “only when scientists abandoned teleology in favor of investigating the physical mechanisms that underlie phenomena” (MPAF, p. 138). In other words, he says, the Scientific Revolution was made possible only by the abandonment of more philosophical modes of thought in favor of mechanistic ones (MPAF, p. 35). So, when it comes to “real scientific research,” teleological thinking” can be a genuine “showstopper” (MPAF, p. 139). But, on the other hand, Barr agrees that to a certain degree we must trust our experiences, “if we are to do any rational thinking at all, including scientific thinking” (MPAF, p. 189), and, more specifically, there are always steps in scientific reasoning that seem obvious to common sense but are not on the list of steps that can be carried out within the formal system (MPAF, p. 222). Again, with regard to quantum theory, it is impossible to bring all of the knowing processes within a closed physical system (MPAF, p. 254).

16. Schönborn, on the other hand, while not denying the autonomy of empirical science, holds for the autonomy also of the perennial science of common experience, namely, Scholastic philosophy, in a unity and interdependence rooted in the one continuum of reality. He opposes the prevailing “spirit-matter dualism” by which physical reality is limited to the reductive claims of modern empirical science and joined only “in a mysterious way” to belief in the “immaterial realities” known to faith and philosophy.25 Schönborn is here opposing the positivistic materialism accepted by most empirical scientists whereby philosophical and religious beliefs are considered to be at best elements of a second-class kind of “reality,” not made up of the “hard facts of science,” but providing, nevertheless, a certain feeling of fulfillment for the human spirit (as do also, by the way, other pursuits, such as music, drama, and sports). On the basis of the absolute separation of faith and reason proposed by some Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century, the objects of faith were consigned to a separate realm of consciousness that does not impinge on the world of empirical science or question theories that empirical scientists sustain, and out of this distinction came the religious outlook of fideism, on the one hand, and the rationalist approach to Sacred Scripture on the other. Schönborn, for his part, upholds the unity of being and the right of Catholic theology and philosophy to defend the real objects of faith by a right use of reason that does converge in some ways with the objects of empirical research. His call for Catholics to “awaken from their dogmatic slumber” is in my estimation a call to remember that correct philosophy and theology are sciences and not just doubtfully factual human pursuits. One is reminded of the unthinking fashion today even among Catholic philosophers and theologians to distinguish between “science and philosophy,” or “science and theology,” rather than be­tween “empirical science and philosophical science,” or “empirical science and theological science.” When Scholastic philosophers define science as “the knowledge of things in their causes,” they mean the knowledge of real things in their real causes, and thus, more comprehensively, science can be defined as “the certified knowledge of reality.” While empirical scientists are dealing with some aspects of reality, philosophers and theologians are dealing with other needed aspects of the same reality.

17. Barr does studiously oppose doctrinaire materialism, but why would it have been necessary for empirical scientists to abandon traditional philosophical thinking in favor of a mechanistic approach, and thus to turn scientific progress into a “scientific revolution,” in order to reach the knowledge that they have today? Why were empirical scientists obligated to turn their gaze completely away from the obvious design of living organisms in order to focus mechanistically upon the merely material side of their reality in order to promote their field of knowledge? It seems that they were just adopting another philosophy of an inferior kind. Even a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins admits that living organisms have every appearance of being artistic and engineering masterpieces, but his mechanistic focus prevents him from recognizing this reality.26 Recently, physicist Anthony Rizzi has lucidly argued that sound phil­osophy, includ­ing the knowledge of formal and final causes, is a science on a par with the empirical sciences and is actually a prerequisite for proper thinking even in the empirical sciences. He notes also and with reason that the prevalent attitude today among empirical scien­tists that philosophical principles are foreign to their field of study is itself an implicit, although not well-thought-out, philosophy.27

18. Barr is of the opinion that the neo-Darwinian theory of natural selection may or may not be a scientifically sufficient explanation for the origin of species (MPAF, p. 109-110). And he thinks that, since neither the theist's nor the materialist's position “can be rigorously proven from the scientific facts,” it is only a matter of which view is “more plausible or credible” (MPAF, pp. 144-145). Schönborn, on the con­trary, maintains that the theist position can be rigorously proven from the scientific facts of philosophy, and that the design of biological organisms is a philosophically scientific fact, based upon the reality of common experience and the solid use of reason. Of course, technical science can disprove things that seem obvious to common sense and has often done so, but it does have to disprove them, not just advance plausible conjectures to the contrary. For instance, the hypothesis of chance operating in an infinity of universes, for which there is absolutely no physical evidence, cannot offset the evidence for design in common experience. Empirical science advances through the discovery of physical laws on the basis of which it can make solid predictions, but the randomness of genetic mutations is not based on any physical law; it assumes the absence of any controlling physical law. What new species or other organic substance can be predicted from a process of random mutations? And natural selection has no role in the production of new organic structures; it only selects from organic structures that already exist. It seems to follow that neo-Darwinism is not a scientific theory; it is rather an ideology that is being imposed upon the data of biological science.

19. Retired chemist Ronald Dressman, in a newly published book, presents formidable arguments against the neo-Darwinian theory of random mutations and natural selection, which, he says, contradicts the physical and chemical laws of the universe,28 and he un­folds a new theoretical framework of evolution complete with sensible mechanisms of accomplishment, according to which the entity that evolved was not the phenotype of the species but only the gamete, on the ground that “there is no compelling evidence to insist upon our believing that the mutation of that genic DNA that is the genetic basis (the genotype) of the pheno­type ever produced a new species through gradual phenotypic change.”29

20. In a four-page reply to Schönborn's response of January 2006, Barr goes on to point out what he sees to be the need to “draw as clear a line as possible between science and philosophy – not to elevate science above philosophy, but to restore science to its ‘metaphysically modest’ role,” while not allowing “philosoph­ical systems to masquerade as science.”30 This is a commendable endeavor when understood rightly. But it should be kept in mind, as noted in paragraph 18 above, that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has every appearance of being a pseudo-philosophy masquerading as science. Again, in the present cultural milieu, to draw a clear line between science and philosophy, rather than between empirical science and philosophical science, is already to elevate empirical science above philosophy, since philosophy is thus considered not to be in the realm of fully certified knowledge but only of what is merely plausible. And the “clear distinc­tion” implies also that empirical science does not take any of its premises from philosophy. But empirical science does take some of its premises from the philosophy of validly reasoned common experience, as physicist Anthony Rizzi has lucidly pointed out. God could certainly have created, as Barr avers, a universe in which the “proba­bilistic resources” were large enough for the random mutations of neo-Darwinian theory to work, and “whether we live in such a universe is an empirical question.”31 But this is not just an empirical question, since it impinges upon what is clearly stated in Sacred Scripture, and only scientific proof, not mere conjecture, can offset what common sense tells us has been revealed by God. Similarly, God could have created the fossils as fossils, but such a conjecture cannot offset what common sense tells us to be otherwise, even if it would seem to bolster the position of some 24-hour-day creationists.

21. Schönborn did not set out particularly to defend the position of the “Intelligent Design Movement” of empi­rical biology, but there are good reasons to believe that it is an alternative scientific theory, inasmuch as empirical science does need to recognize data that are outside of its own purview, such as, for instance, the need of an intelli­gent Designer. On a purely empirical level, one could say that the hammer made the box and the chain-saw pruned the tree, but it would not be scientific to contest on purely formal grounds the philosopher, the historian, or the journalist who says that this man George held the hammer and that man James wielded the chain-saw. And the creation of design should not be considered to lie outside of the purview of all science, but only outside of the restricted purview of empirical science, just as the data of other empirical sciences which lie outside of the purview of one empirical science are, nevertheless, accepted as facts by that empirical science. Barr does not deny this, nor does he deny that events happen which go beyond the natural order, for instance, mirac­ulous cures, but, he adds, such cures do not represent an advance in oncology.32 Schönborn, however, is not talking about miracles; he holds that sub­stantial forms and living forms are within the natural order, and it is not clear where Dr. Barr stands on this issue.

22. Why is there a need to postulate substantial forms? Barr maintains that neo-Darwinian theory proposes a natural mechan­ism for producing complex organic structure, using statistically random genetic mutations,33 but it is easy to see on the level of philosophical science why Schönborn objects to this. The random mutations of neo-Darwinian theory, he says, are simply random, as is also its natural selection. In my view, natural selection can choose among organisms, but it cannot produce a new organism. And we know that chance is “two-dimensional,” in the sense that it cannot produce by itself a new structure. Chance can determine which card comes forth from a deck, chance can rearrange the cards in a deck, but chance cannot change a deck of cards into something else. On the other hand, it is true that genetic mutations are by definition changes, so, apart from the statistical improbability of a new species emerging by chance, why could new species of living organisms not emerge by chance mutations? I think that the philosophical answer to this question is that a rearrangement of chemicals is not enough to produce a living organism; a living form is required, which Scholastic philosophers call a vegetative soul, an animal soul, or a human soul, and in living souls one can find a driving force of evolution, supposing that evolution has ever taken place. To identify this force with the activity of proximately or remotely created formal and final causes operating in union with material and efficient causes does provide an answer that is satisfying to human reason. St. Augustine postulated the pre-packaging by God of the forms of living things in lifeless matter, but he also allowed for further divine interventions in the emergence of living species. And Barr does allow for the need of divine intervention in the emergence of human souls, if not for the emergence of life itself.

23. In a postscript to this exchange with Dr. Barr, Cardinal Schönborn observes that intel­ligence is in some sense built into nature by way of formal causes, which are "the reality of the patterned structure of a natural thing as an irreducible cause of its activities,” and final causes, which are “the reality of the tendency of natural things to act in the same way according to their natures.” But, he cautions, “Let us not be excessively hasty in wanting to demonstrate ‘intelligent design’ everywhere.”34 With regard to the evolutionary worldview, a fundamental question is this: How could the primal matter, which was probably less structured than a stream of photons, have contained within itself the potentiality to become the physical and biological universe of today? Where was this potentiality stored? Is it reasonable to hold that it was not stored anywhere but just popped out gradually on its own over a period of 14 or 15 billion years? A more satisfying answer is that God put it there. Let us take an example. Hydrogen and oxygen have the potentiality in union with each other to become water, and water has qualities that are above and quite different from hydrogen and oxygen. Where did these qualities come from? I consider the correct answer to be that God first created the idea (design and qualities) of water and then endowed hydrogen and oxygen with the power to become it. In this sense, the form of water was made available to the matter of hydrogen and oxygen, using energy that was available. Similarly, neo-Darwinists ignore the presence of substantial forms and of life itself as being anything distinctively different from the under­lying matter. Yet every living organism has features that exceed the features of the atoms of which it is composed. Where did these features come from? God created the idea (design and qualities) of the species and then gave to the progenitors of the species the power to be drawn into the actuation of that form.

24. For Schönborn, the decisive question in this discussion lies neither on the level of empirical science nor on that of sacred theology, but rather in the area of natural philosophy, which now, regrettably, is being construed “only as a meta-narrative for modern science” and “contains no positive knowledge of its own,” but in another way the same can be said for sacred theology, which does not begin from a mere awareness that the existence of God is hypothetically possible, and that God could, therefore, hypothetically have created and designed the universe, but rather begins from the certified knowledge that God exists and has revealed to men the creation of a designed universe. In recent decades we have, unfortunately, seen a wholesale retreat by Catholic theologians, using questionable methods of historical research, from defending the historical truth of many divine interventions reported in the Bible. The tradi­tional Catholic approach still stands firm, but it has always acknowl­edged the use by God of secondary and instrumental causes in carrying out his governance of the world. Barr points out that the ideas of the human authors of the Bible “were those of an ancient, pre-scientific people” which “naturally seem very primitive to us” (MPAF, p. 65). And their ideas were pre-scientific in comparison with what empirical scientists know today about the physical universe, but they were also keen observers of historical realities, and what they wrote down had the aid of divine inspiration, a fact which historical critics tend today to downplay to the point of non-existence. Hence, Cardinal Schönborn's wake-up call to slumbering Catholics is more than appropriate, and it should be extended, not only to Aristotelian/Thomist philosophers who have practically “thrown in the towel” to reductivist empirical scientists, but also to Catholic interpreters of the Bible who have unwittingly adopted some of the false and rationalistic premises of the historical-critical school. Dr. Barr's point is well made that God, in his divine providence, works through natural causes more than most people realize. On the other hand, Cardinal Schönborn has done a great service to the Church in calling to her attention the sleepy response of Catholic philosophers and theologians to the threat that the ideology of neo-Darwinism poses to philosophical and theological science.


1 Cf. Stephen M. Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” in First Things, vol. 154 (October 2005), pp. 9-10.

2 International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God (23 July 2004), no. 69.

3 Cf. Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 11.

4 Cf. Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 12.

5 Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” in First Things, (January 2006), pp. 35, 38.

6 Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” p. 34.

7 Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” pp. 34-35.

8 Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p, 10.

9 International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship (July 23, 2004), no. 69.

10 International Theological Commission, ibid.

11 Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 11.

12 The ITC document here refers to Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, part I, q. 22, art. 4, ad I.

13 The signed statement can be viewed on the Internet at

14 Cf. Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 11.

15 Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 12.

16 Barr, ibid.

17 Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” p. 35.

18 Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” p. 36.

19 Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 10.

20 Barr, “The Design of Evolution,” p. 9.

21 Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” p. 35.

22 Schönborn, ibid.

23 Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith ((Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) – available on line at

24 Barr discusses at length St. Thomas’ Argument from Design for the existence of God in chapters 9-13 of MPAF.

25 Schönborn, “The Designs of Science,” p. 35.

26 Cf. R. Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston – New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), p. 79.

27 A. Rizzi, The Science Before Science (Baton Rouge, LA: IAP Press, 2004), pp. 4 and 9. Available on line at See also the review in Living Tradition 123 (May 2006).

28 R.C. Dressman, Not by Chance: A Theory of Evolution Governed by Essential Law and Driven by Natural Effectuation (Infinity Publishing Company, 1094 New DeHaven Street, Suite 100, West Conshohocken, PA 19428, January 2007 – obtainable on line at, pp. 25 and 71-72. See also the review in Living Tradition 127 (January 2007).

29 Dressman, ibid., p. 165.

30 Stephen M. Barr, “The Miracle of Evolution,” in First Things (February 2006), p. 31.

31 Barr, “The Miracle of Evolution,” p. 32.

32 Barr, ibid.

33 Barr, ibid.

34 Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, “Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith,” in First Things (April 2007), p. 22 and 26 (adapted from a presentation given in Sept. 2006 at a pontifical colloquium on creation and evolution).

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