Defining Davidson Down


Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (“The Designs of Science,” January) writes that “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.” The cardinal is not the first to characterize science in this way, but he is wrong nonetheless.

Contemporary science does not exclude final and formal causes a priori ; excluding anything a priori would be contrary to the scientific cast of mind. Rather, beginning with Galileo, natural scientists crafted theories making no use of formal and final causes, and it has turned out that such theories are tremendously successful in predicting and explaining large areas of our sensory experience. Formal and final causes were thus eliminated from biology and physics on the scientific merits, not by methodological diktat . They went the way later followed by phlogiston and the interstellar ether.

His protests notwithstanding, the cardinal’s argument presupposes that formal and final causes, if they exist, are on an epistemological par with whatever entities contemporary scientific theory posits to explain experience.

When the cardinal asserts that the contemporary scientist fails to notice and explain “an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern” in “the sweep of life,” he is contending that the contemporary scientific account fails to explain certain observable aspects of reality. This is a scientific objection to a scientific theory epistemologically akin to the objection that Newtonian mechanics could not explain the precession of the perihelion of Mercury. When the cardinal further asserts that by positing formal and final causes he can explain the observed patterns he alleges, he is proposing an alternative theory that is as scientific in its intent as the theory it seeks to replace.

But the cardinal’s account is unconvincing as science. The fact about the world that contemporary theory fails to explain, according to the cardinal, is the correlation between “two indisputable facts: Evolution happened . . . and our present biosphere is the result. The two sets of facts correlate perfectly.” The cardinal would explain this supposed correlation by appeal to final causality, hypothesizing that life forms evolved the way they did in order that human life result.

There are many problems with this argument, but I will mention only one: What are correlated, as natural science understands correlations, are variables, not one-time events like the happening of evolution and the existence of the present biosphere. In a trivial sense, we can say that any two one-time events”say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the accession of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency”are “perfectly correlated” in the sense that both in fact occurred, but there is no reason to assume that there must be a connection between the events mediated by formal or final causes. Oswald assassinated Kennedy and Johnson became president, but only conspiracy theorists think that Oswald assassinated Kennedy in order that Johnson become president.

Not recognizing formal and final causes as concepts discarded from the scientific enterprise, Cardinal Schönborn assigns them to what he calls natural philosophy, a discipline that “provides our most fundamental and most certain grasp on reality” and, it seems, underlies science, for “true science is impossible unless we first grasp the reality of natures and essences, the intelligible principles of the natural world.”

An additional indication that the cardinal has misunderstood the status of these concepts is that the notion of philosophy he urges is not found in Thomas Aquinas, whom the cardinal purports to follow. Far from thinking of philosophy as delivering knowledge of essences, Aquinas thought that we do not have much knowledge about the essences of things, and such knowledge as we do have we gain only after long empirical (we might say scientific) investigation. It is no doubt part of the essence of gold, for example, to have atomic number 79, but we know this only by scientific inquiry, not by philosophical speculation involving formal and final causes.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas did recognize a branch of philosophy that treats existence qua existence, which I take to be the meaning of Cardinal Schönborn’s “intelligible principles of the natural world.” But this kind of philosophy, generally called metaphysics, does not do what the cardinal wants. It does not treat particular kinds of things like plants and animals with a special set of concepts unknown to empirical science; rather, it treats all of existence indifferently at a very high level of generality. Nor does it precede science in the order of inquiry; it was taught last in the medieval curriculum, as the culmination of natural human knowledge.

Such philosophy does indeed yield arguments for the existence of God, arguments like the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas, but these arguments are based on the broadest features of existence generally, not on the particular characteristics of a particular class of things like the higher forms of life.

These arguments, incidentally, are scientific in the sense that they attempt to explain aspects of our observed experience, albeit very general ones, such as the existence of the universe generally and the lawlike regularity of its behavior. When the Catholic Church has taught that the existence of God can be known by human reason, it has had arguments like these in mind.

Inventing new arguments based on the particular characteristics of biological organisms is a dubious business, especially if it requires us not only to rely on formal and final causality, both long discredited in science, but also to invent a new branch of philosophy unknown to St. Thomas. We do better staying with the traditional arguments, suitably updated and elaborated using the resources of analytic philosophy.


Robert T. Miller
Villanova University
School of Law
Villanova, Pennsylvania



The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye coined a term that has stuck with me: “the fallacy of premature teleology.” He was speaking of an error in literary criticism, not biology, but his term captures what bothers me so much about the Intelligent Design movement. In his op-ed piece in the New York Times , Christoph Cardinal Schönborn claimed 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,” an assertion he repeated”without alteration or demurral”in his article for FIRST THINGS . I too can discern purpose in the natural world, an insight I share with the rest of the human race: Everyone now reading this sentence knows that eyes are meant for seeing. But I think it important to stress that, while all design bespeaks purpose (no one ever designs anything without having an ulterior purpose in mind), not everything purposive has to have been designed. Admittedly, this distinction did not become clear until Charles Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection into biological thought. But once his argument entered the world, those who want to argue that the concepts of purpose and design are coterminous, as did William Paley in the early nineteenth century, have a lot of work to do.

A too-tight equation of purpose and design only ends up becoming a stalking horse for atheism. Consider the case of bird flu: If any form of biological complexity whatever is to be taken as an automatic argument for divine design without further ado, then we should be praying that God not design a mutation of the avian virus that could jump over into the human population, which is absurd. We rightly fear a crossover mutation because random mutations may or may not happen. But we also know that if the random mutation does happen to allow the virus to make the jump to humans, the human host will prove a fertile ground for the virus’ multiplication according to the principles of natural selection.

Whenever anyone raises questions about antibiotics or antiviral drugs as an argument for natural selection, Intelligent Design advocates immediately concede the point but then claim that natural selection doesn’t operate to give rise to new species. If that is their position, then they should at least admit that the onus probandi is on them; plus it wouldn’t hurt if they could praise Darwin for giving us the heuristic ability to understand the mutating behavior of viruses and bacteria.

As to the worries, constantly expressed, that natural selection undermines theism, I think it is important to keep in mind St. Thomas’ distinction between primary and secondary causality, that is, between God’s providence and the effects of natural law operating on its own steam, as it were. As he says in his Summa Theologiae : “Divine providence does not impose necessity on things to the exclusion of contingency . . . . Whatever divine providence decrees shall happen inevitably and through necessity, happens inevitably and through necessity. Whatever it intends to happen contingently, happens contingently.”

An example will illustrate the point: I once knew a student of deep faith whose parents met when his father was involved in a severe automobile accident, which forced him to spend several weeks in the hospital. There he met his future wife who was working in the hospital as a nurse. “From my mother’s womb you called me,” the student readily believed. And yet he would be horrified if someone had told him that God directly caused the accident that led, accidentally but providentially, to his conception.

I do not deny the worry caused among believers by “Darwinian hijackers” like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. But the best way of dealing with them is to adopt the strategy Thomas adopted with Aristotle’s much less severe philosophical errors. Thomas knew on the basis of his faith that certain conclusions Aristotle drew about the nature of the soul or the providentiality of God had to be wrong. But he also realized that these were philosophical errors that had to be refuted philosophically .

In other words, the big mistake in dealing with atheist Darwinians is to buy into the major premise of their argument: that Darwinian biology is incompatible with theism. Panicked statements by Intelligent Design advocates that “we will either be a nation under God or under Darwin” are unhelpful. (I can just imagine Screwtape and Wormwood smacking their lips and rubbing their hands in glee at that concession!) Much better would be to let these naturalistic ideologues hang themselves on the rope of their own contradictions. By a happy coincidence, and because of the generous hospitality of the editors of FIRST THINGS, I was already able to do that with Dennett in the same issue where the cardinal’s essay appeared. As for Dawkins, I recommend Simon Conway Morris’ book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge) for a full-scale refutation of Dawkins on solid Darwinian grounds.

Although atheists do a lot of damage to susceptible minds by depriving them of the consolations of religion, their ideology should never pose an intellectual threat to believers, but only provoke justified dismay at their arrogance. As C.S. Lewis said in A Grief Observed , “I will never believe”more strictly I can’t believe”that one set of physical events can be, or make, a mistake about other sets.”


Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
University of St. Mary of the Lake
Mundelein, Illinois



Christoph Cardinal Schönborn’s article in your last issue has a special resonance for Protestants who cheer on the Intelligent Design movement. Whereas the Catholic thinker may rely on an intellectual Christian framework offered by St. Thomas and, before him, Aristotle, the Protestant has a patchwork of Barth, Bruner, Bultmann, Tillich, Hartshorne, Cobb, Gilkey, et al. All of these were and are serious, worthy scholars of Christian thought, but they offer contemporary Protestants meager ammunition in the current battles over design. In particular, as Cardinal Schönborn demonstrates, the Catholic thinker can develop a compelling argument”both for its critical insight and its venerable tradition”from the Thomistic analysis of causes. This analysis demonstrates that the modern scientist excludes two of the traditional causes”formal and final”at the outset. Thus, when the zoologist asserts he sees no design in the chambered nautilus, he is acknowledging not so much that a design is not evident to him as that a design or formal cause was excluded from the beginning.

The exclusion of formal and final causes tells us several things about modern science: one, that it stands in defiance of nearly two thousand years of unaided human reason from Aristotle to St. Paul to the Scholastic Fathers; two, that it restricts our definition of reason to the point that our senses are no longer permitted to inform us adequately. Science closes the door to nature. As long as the excluded causes, formal and final, continue to fall outside the purview of the intellect (as defined by scientific reductionists), the Intelligent Design movement will face opposition.

B.L. Levens
Savannah, Georgia


Christoph Cardinal Schönborn replies:



I am grateful for the thoughtful letters from readers. It would take a book-length treatment to do justice to the issues raised in summary fashion by my essay and the letters. Here I provide only the sketchiest of responses, while looking forward to a continuing dialogue.

Robert T. Miller points to, in effect, an equivocation on the word “science.” In my essay I followed the modern usage, in which the word means (borrowing Jacques Maritain’s term) the empiriological investigation of nature. I certainly agree, however, that philosophical arguments are scientific in the broader, older meaning of the term and must stand or fall based on their relation to observable reality.

It is true that excluding truths and explanations a priori is contrary to “the scientific cast of mind.” But early modern scientists were humans too, with all the usual weaknesses that implies. They were, for example, deeply influenced in their science by various theological and philosophical commitments well known to historians of mechanical philosophy. They did indeed rule out certain kinds of explanations on the supposition that they were either useless or false. Part of that supposition was justifiable, in that one can and must assume the existence of substances with their natural ends in order to investigate experimentally and explain mathematically the mechanical “inner workings” of their natures. Moreover, in its bold and very fruitful decision to study nature in a “species-neutral” fashion”that is, according to the regularities common to all material things, reified as “laws of nature””modern science appropriately excluded from consideration those aspects of nature that make things specifically what they are”that is, the natures and essences of substances.

The problem, however, is that once assumed and thus excluded from active scientific study, these aspects of reality soon drop out of understanding completely, and that is largely where we find ourselves today. The kinds of problems to which I refer are sketched out for us in the realm of biology by the American biochemist and medical doctor Leon Kass in his brilliant essay “The Permanent Limitations of Biology.”

Miller provides a fine example of the problem when he implies that humankind did not really know what gold is”did not know it essentially”until its “atomic number” was known. Yet surely humans have known the essence of gold for thousands of years, and our modern empiriological knowledge only supplements and gives greater precision to knowledge that was already well established. The truths of empiriological science go hand in hand with the truths of natural philosophy, each depending on and making up for the limitations of the other, as a fine recent article by Michael Augros in the Thomist , “Reconciling Science with Natural Philosophy,” makes clear.

As to whether I am a faithful son of St. Thomas, here I must with regret disagree with Miller. The undeniable basis for the metaphysics of Aristotle and St. Thomas is their prior study of the natural world of changeable being”of “physics” in their sense of the term. If modern science had shown that Aristotle’s studies of the natural world were false in all relevant ways, then it would also have shown that the metaphysics of St. Thomas was false as well. Conversely, if St. Thomas’ metaphysics is a true science of being qua being, then in some essential respects his underlying physics”suitably updated and purified of empirical errors”is a true description of the natural world.

Fortunately, in this very moment in history some empiriological scientists have a sufficiently “scientific cast of mind” to begin to see and grapple with the limits of reductionism in science, and thus return “from below,” as it were, towards a classical understanding of nature. Thus in biology we find a growing rebellion against reductionism and a return to holism in the writings of first-class scientists such as Franklin Harold in The Way of the Cell .

Even in physics there is a movement toward holism and hierarchical ordering in nature, exemplified by the Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin’s astounding book A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down . Wherever we see scientists grappling with the existence of “emergent properties” in nature, we see the bottom-up rediscovery of the formal and structural principles long known to classical philosophy and still needed for a complete grasp of material reality.

As to the allegedly unscientific nature of my comments about the teleological pattern evident in evolution, I refer Professor Miller to the excellent book mentioned in Father Edward T. Oakes’ letter. Simon Conway Morris’ work Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe is a fine example of what natural teleology looks like from the “bottom-up” perspective of the modern empiriological scientist.

In the magnificent words of St. Thomas, “Hence it is clear that nature is nothing but a certain kind of art, i.e. , the divine art, impressed upon things, by which these things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if the shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship ” (emphasis added).

Thus, the Thomistic philosopher would expect nature to exhibit an intrinsic teleology, an immanent, lawlike self-unfolding that would appear to the empiriological scientist as “self-organization,” “emergent properties,” and other such philosophically question-begging locutions, as if matter itself was the source of the ontologically prior (although not necessarily temporally prior) principles that organize and structure it.

Turning to the next letter, I sense that I may be caught somewhat in the crossfire between Oakes and his Intelligent Design opponents in their fascinating debates that have unfolded in the pages of FIRST THINGS. Since I have no ability to defend, or interest in defending, Intelligent Design theory, I will step back, leaving behind three comments.

First, I respectfully disagree with his characterization of the work of Simon Conway Morris as a “refutation of Dawkins on solid Darwinian grounds.” Morris’ work on teleological, lawlike evolution is in fact a powerful challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy, which is based in large part on the absolute contingency of the results of variation and natural selection as they drive the purposeless meanderings of phylogeny across an arbitrarily changing fitness landscape. This is made clear by the book reviews of Morris’ work by ultra-Darwinists who, emboldened perhaps by his known status as a Christian believer, have gone so far as to label him a “creationist” for claiming to find scientific evidence for laws of evolution.

As to the question of “purpose without design,” I agree that the extrinsic teleology and implied perfectionism of William Paley is untenable, but I think a proper understanding of the problem is more difficult than Oakes seems to think. A careful discussion of this problem would, however, far exceed the scope of this response. As I hope my essay made clear, a suitably tamed version of neo-Darwinism is certainly compatible with traditional philosophical truths about nature. But unfortunately in practice Darwinism as science seems almost always to transform itself into Darwinism as pseudo-philosophy, the fact that led to my attack on an overreaching Darwinism in my New York Times essay. What the biological sciences need is a “non-Darwinian Darwinism,” as Father Stanley

Jaki makes clear in a fine essay by that name in the recent volume L’Evoluzione: Crocevia di Scienza, Filosofia e Teologia .

Finally, Oakes raises the important question of theodicy, but I wonder whether it is fair for him to focus his critique on “intelligent design” theorists. After all, our Catholic faith teaches that God providentially reigns over all of reality, down to its tiniest details. So orthodox Christianity itself must answer the charges of “natural evil” raised by Oakes. Darwinism provides no easy answers for theology, unless one incorporates evolutionary thinking into theology, using Darwinistic and heterodox “process theology” to absolve God from the responsibilities of His all-encompassing providence.

I have given some attention to these problems in my series of catechetical lectures, but certainly there are no easy answers. As with so many mysteries, orthodox Christianity must accept completely and unequivocally two truths”in this case, that God is all good and all powerful”and humbly shoulder the difficult burden of fitting those two truths together without diluting either of them.

I give thanks for the kind words from B.L. Levens. As with so many battles in the modern world, Protestants and Catholics have in common a defense of the traditional Christian faith, even unpopular and uncomfortable truths such as we find in Romans 1:19“20. I hope my year of catechetical lectures on these difficult topics can be of some service in this great work.

Benedict’s Europe



Pope Benedict’s essay (“Europe and Its Discontents,” January) attempts historical survey within the confines of a manifesto. Its insights are bright and concise, but its greatest omission is its treatment of Marxism exclusively within the context of a survey of political theory. To be sure, Marxism was a delusion ending in enormous cruelty, but why did it draw so much support? We cannot dismiss those who believed in it as idiots. And how can we attribute to Communism the dehumanization that has visited America in recent times, when we were for many years a fiercely anti-Communist nation?

I would suggest that Marx gave a wrong answer to a right question: How shall we counter the dehumanizing of the Industrial Revolution? If we wish to defend the family today, we need to understand the extent to which it was attacked by the sudden explosion of industrial capitalism. Almost overnight, cities replaced villages, factories replaced guilds, and the blue-collar commuter was born.

Marx defined the problem as a class struggle and insisted that classes had to be eliminated. The first thing that had to fall, of course, was private ownership and capital. We rightly rejected this proposition. I would argue, however, that we did not reject one of the insidious premises of Marxist theory: that the value of a life is judged by its contribution to the economy. Feminism behaves like the last-surviving child of Marxism when it seeks to establish woman’s value by moving her into the workplace. Our youngest children are sent to child-farms so that mothers can go do more profitable things. It was in the pope’s homeland that the term Kinderfeindheit arose”seeing children as the enemy. This is the origin of the self-hatred pervading the West.


Rev. Al Hoger
Immanuel Lutheran Church
Wichita, Kansas


Pope Benedict wrote a highly challenging, comprehensive, and respectful article calling for a European identity with three strong pillars”a pillar of human rights and dignity, a pillar of marriage and the family, and a pillar of religious multiculturalism that respects the Christian religion and its European traditions. This learned, gentle leader shows little patience with the self-hatred of the West toward its own religious origins. He ends his article with a call for Christians in Europe to become a creative minority that helps Europe reclaim the best of its heritage.

In this spirit, realizing that we cannot go back to a time when Christian thought and tradition were dominant in European affairs, we should recognize that secularists are not necessarily the enemy we often presume them to be. In order to go forward, we must appreciate that many atheists can be people of good will who fully support human rights and dignity; that certain types of permanent, civil homosexual unions may be respectful and even supportive of the long-term goals of traditional marriage; and that a secular culture can express much that is spiritually positive when it encourages, in addition to its own views, the full expression of religious beliefs in a wide variety of forms and traditions.

To go forward in this way is necessarily to loosen our grip on dogma, at least insofar as it might be used as a club against others. The “peculiar self-hatred” that the Holy Father notices in the West is our continuing guilt over how Western Christian dogmas were misused in the past to exclude, humiliate, and punish those who held different beliefs, or who held no religious beliefs at all. The hand of friendship, love, and service must now be extended, as the Holy Father says, “to show the face of the revealed God.”


Daniel J. Biezad
San Louis Obispo, California


As a French American who dearly loves both countries and feels blessed to be able to move comfortably from one culture to the other, I want to speak to Americans reading Pope Benedict’s article about our response as Christians to Europe’s problems: Whatever is happening in Europe can happen in the United States, or is already happening here. Americans should not indulge in a false sense of security.

When the pope says that “modern democracies reject God as being the shaper of history,” that only “the will of its citizens counts,” and that the “secular and modern state declares that God is a private question, God is a sentiment,” American readers of FIRST THINGS might sense that the pope is talking about their own country.



Michele Szekely
San Francisco, California


Twins and Embryos


In commenting on the review of The Soul of an Embryo, Father Neuhaus (The Public Square, January) introduces a red herring: “The point at which one entity (a single embryo) splits into two entities (two identical twins) is of defining importance in determining whether a human life (or lives) has been unjustly taken.” He says he has “never found it persuasive,” and he is right, because there is no scientist who says that a geranium plant, for instance, is not a single organism simply because it is possible to break off a branch and grow a twin from it.

All this means is that the unifying energy of the geranium plant, which pervades the whole, is not destroyed when the branch is broken off, and it proceeds to do its work of producing a whole, unified plant out of what was only a branch. In the human case, it is obvious to any objective observer that there is a unifying energy organizing and directing the development of the “cell mass” from the beginning”selecting, for example, which cells shall be specialized and how and when. The fact that, at an early stage, what this unifying energy is doing is simple enough and the parts it produces are not specialized enough so that, if the “mass” is separated, it can still do its work in each part does not prove that the unifying energy is not (a) single or (b) unifying a single organism. This unifying energy is what philosophers call the “soul” and is what later expresses itself in consciousness and personality.


George A. Blair
Cincinnati, Ohio