To the second edition of his Principia Mathematica, published in 1713, Isaac Newton appended what he called a scholium generale. A principal concern of Newton's had been to refute Descartes' theory of planetary motions, which he renounced as a materialistic theory. The perfection and the regularity of these motions cannot “have their origin in mechanical causes,” Newton insisted. “This supremely exquisite structure that is visible to us, comprising the sun, the planets, and the comets, could come into being solely through the decision and under the dominion of an intelligent and powerful, truly existing being. . . . He steers everything, not as a world-soul, but as the Lord of all things.”
Indeed, Newton added an energetic remark directed against the deism that was already rampant in the early eighteenth century: “A God lacking in dominion, providence, and final causes is nothing other than mere fate and mere nature. No possibility of change in things may be derived from blind metaphysical necessity, which is after all always and everywhere the same. The entire manifold of things ordered according to place and time could originate solely from the ideas and the will of a truly existent being, one that exists as a matter of necessity.” And this section of the scholium closes: “So much, then, about God; to make assertions about Him on the basis of natural appearances pertains directly to natural philosophy.”
Newton's scholium contains, in a nutshell, many of the essential questions that still occupy us today when discussing science, reason, and faith. Yet already in Newton's view of divine action a major shift from the Aristotelian and medieval understanding has taken place. In the traditional view, the Creator endows nature with a kind of quasi-intelligence: Like an agent, nature “acts for an end,” with immanent principles of self-unfolding and self-operation. Newton, by contrast, is already seized by the early modern “mechanical philosophy,” in which nature is seen as a kind of unnatural composite of passive, unintelligent, preexisting matter, on which order has been extrinsically imposed by a Supreme Intelligence.
Some of the passion of these concerns about science, reason, and faith came to vehement expression after my publication of an article on the topic in the New York Times on July 7, 2005. A debate about whether, for example, a newly discovered manuscript contains an authentic work of St. Augustine or not stirs passionate debate, but such a debate is relevant only to a small circle of the initiated. The question whether the universe and the place human beings have within it owe their origin to blind chance or to a supremely wise and good plan arouses us all.
Assume for the moment that—as many modern scientists believe—science arrives at the conclusion, on the basis of its methods of investigation, that everything is the result of a blind game of chance and necessity. The religious answer to the fundamental questions of human existence then seems to become groundless, a free-floating garland asserted without justification. If the assertion that the world arises from a plan, from the setting of a goal by the Creator, were to turn out to be scientifically baseless, then faith in a Creator and his Providence would be irrational, based at best on a credo quia absurdum. And a belief built on an absurd basis is not belief but an illusion, of the sort that Sigmund Freud and so many others have tried to expose and destroy.
Newton's scholium generale frames beautifully the modern version of this debate. For him, the evenness of planetary orbits is a phenomenon that does not permit of an explanation based on mechanical causes. This elegantissime structure can have originated solely through the decision and dominion of a supreme intelligence. Based on the phenomena of nature, one attains to certainty about the Creator.
Indeed, Newton goes even further, arguing that the multiplicity of objects cannot originate from the blind play of coincidence and necessity. Conventional evolutionary theory today declares the exact opposite: The entire range of species has originated through the undirected play of the forces of mutation and selection. For Newton, the entire range of objects derives its origins solely “from the ideas and the will” of the Supreme Being. And this is for him a certainty that he derives from his researches.
But there was a problem lurking in Newton's argument. He assumed, in this account, that God's providence repeatedly intervened in order to secure the stability of planetary orbits and of the solar system. In the absence of such repeated special divine intervention, Newton's mathematical calculations indicated that the planetary orbits would be unstable and quickly devolve from order to chaos.
Newton's equally brilliant interlocutor Leibniz took Newton to task for the notion that it was necessary for “God to wind up His watch from time to time.” According to Newton's outlook, God's work was “imperfect in a manner that requires Him to clean and even to repair it from time to time, just like a watchmaker must do with ‘His work.'” Leibniz held this to be a diminution of the omnipotence of God, and he argued instead for a “sublime pre-stabilized order” in which alone the wisdom and power of God is manifested.
We know that Leibniz's view was thoroughly vindicated within a century. The great physicist Laplace, with a great deal of additional data about the solar system and a better-developed mathematical physics of celestial mechanics, was able to provide a purely mechanical explanation for the orbits of the planets less than a hundred years later. It was in that rather restrictive and perfectly reasonable sense—the sense in which he had concluded that God did not need to intervene to keep the planets in their precise orbits—that he uttered the famous line to Napoleon, when the latter asked him about the place of God in his explanation: “Je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothese”—I have no need of that hypothesis.
Here we find one of the best examples (they are actually rather rare, despite their fame) of the so-called god-of-the-gaps problem associated with a religious worldview. Wherever one invokes God to fill gaps in physical knowledge, his place is diminished with every discovery that is able to explain a piece of the heretofore inexplicable. When God's role is seen as one of an extrinsic agent acting on nature from the outside to explain specific phenomena, these survival spaces of the Creator become ever more diminished as the natural sciences advance in explaining phenomena with their particular mode of explanation. And each time these survival spaces decrease, the more assured of victory are many in the scientific community that the “God Hypothesis” will one day become entirely unnecessary.
Yet the whole god-of-the-gaps problem turns on two peculiarly modern—and false—ideas. The first is that intelligence can operate only by extrinsic manipulation of preexisting, relatively passive things. But what if intelligence is in some sense “built in” to nature? What if the lawfulness of nature—a fact dismissed by modern minds in favor of “blind necessity”—is the most direct and obvious sign of the intelligence behind and “inside” it?
The second is the univocal understanding of the notion of cause and the ambiguous concept of a law of nature. To explain the cause of a natural phenomenon in terms of some mechanically continuous billiard-ball process is to explain by means of what the ancients called efficient and material cause. But it says nothing about the formal cause (the reality of the patterned structure of a natural thing as an irreducible cause of its activities) nor the final cause (the reality of the tendency of natural things repeatedly to act in the same way according to their natures—to act “always or for the most part”). Conversely, to explain by means of a law of nature is to approach somewhat the classical notion of final cause, but such explanations immediately raise the specter of David Hume's skepticism: Are laws of nature really explanations, or are they mere regularities of past occurrences from which we have no solid grounds to infer any kind of causation at all?
It was in this already thoroughly modern intellectual milieu—with “design” understood solely as extrinsic teleology, the “laws of nature” lacking in any clear post-Humean meaning, and “cause” reduced to a single billiard-ball concept—that Charles Darwin entered the scene. As careful research by Fr. Stanley Jaki and others has shown, Darwin wanted to give a scientific and plausible explanation of the origin of species able to dispense entirely with distinct and independent creational acts of God. His theory was a single extended argument for a purely immanent—indeed, a purely material and mechanical explanation—of the origin of species. Where Newton had still asserted that no change and thus no variation in things could possibly develop through blind necessity, Darwin made exactly the opposite argument: The whole diversity of species has its origin in mutations based on coincidence and their probability of survival. No plan of the Creator—much less any special interventions—were required for this process to result in everything we now observe in the biosphere.
There is scarcely any doubt that Darwin wished to assist materialism in securing scientific victory. He hardly stood alone in this effort during the nineteenth century. Not coincidentally, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels enthusiastically welcomed Darwin's theory as the scientific basis for their own theory. This ideological, worldview-oriented aspect of Darwin's theory is probably the principal reason for the fact that, down to the present day, evolution and creation unabatedly remain the objects of intense discussion and impassioned struggle.
If we are going to bring more clarity to the modern debate by employing the means of natural philosophy, several steps are necessary.
We must first and foremost recover an understanding of what the modern scientific method is able to explain and what it is intrinsically unable to explain. We must recognize that by its method it cannot deal directly with top-down causation or with the natures or essences of things. It proceeds instead by means of mathematical and mechanical explanations that, in the old expression, “save the phenomena.” Neurobiological research, for example, can uncover with exquisite detail the physical substrate of mental processes. But neuroscience cannot prove that the mind is reducible to the brain, because its methods are unable directly to grapple with immaterial realities. (In fact, good neuroscience is highly suggestive of the irreducibility of mind to brain.) Scientism—by which I mean the philosophy (usually implicit and unrecognized) that modern science is the only way of gaining objective knowledge of reality—must be overcome.
Next, armed with a richer understanding of the nature and limits of modern science, we must reexamine the genuine science at work in Darwin's theory and its developments, and begin to separate it from ideological and worldview-oriented elements that are foreign to science. Darwin must be disentangled from Darwinism; modern evolutionary theory must be freed from its ideological shackles.
To do this, people must be permitted to exercise criticism rooted in fact against the reductionist and ideological aspects of Darwinism. A truly liberal society would at least allow students to hear of the debate between anti-teleological theories and those scientists and philosophers who defend teleology in nature. And this, in turn, requires considerable freedom in the discussion of open questions in evolutionary theory. Commonly in the scientific community, every inquiry into the scientific weaknesses of the theory is blocked off at the outset, and there prevails a type of censorship similar to that for which the Church is frequently reproached.
But the decisive question lies not at the level of the natural sciences, or at the level of theology, but rather between the two—in the realm of natural philosophy. The possibility that the Creator makes use of the instrument of evolution is one that the Catholic faith can countenance. The question is whether evolutionism (as a materialistic, reductionistic, worldview-forming concept) is compatible with faith in a Creator. This question in turn presupposes that one distinguishes between the scientific theory of evolution and its philosophical and reductionist interpretation. This in turn presupposes the attainment of clarity regarding the philosophical presuppositions behind the current debate over evolution.
Often one seeks a way out based on the notion that biology and, for that matter, all the natural sciences are merely methodologically materialistic and mechanistic, and thus they do not require materialism and mechanism as a worldview or a philosophy. Even if this were so, it still remains clear that this methodological option is a spiritual act that presupposes human intelligence, will, and freedom. That alone is sufficient to demonstrate that the limitation of the methods in the natural sciences to purely material processes cannot do justice to the whole of reality.
Newton's statement that it is the task of natural philosophy to make assertions about God on the basis of natural phenomena retains its full validity. The Catholic faith, along with the bibles of the Old and New Covenants, holds firmly that reason can discern the existence of the Creator through his traces in Creation with certainty, albeit not without effort.
As the philosopher Hans Jonas was writing his important work The Imperative of Responsibility (1979), it became clear to him that it makes no sense to speak of ethics and responsibility if there is no such thing as the spirit, the soul, reason, and free will. Genes do not assume responsibility. After all, they are not subject to judgment when they produce cancer cells. Animals also are not answerable to responsibility. Only human beings carry responsibility and must (finally before the judgment of God) give an account for their deeds.
Of course, even though daily life incessantly refutes the materialistic point of view, it is an error into which even intelligent persons fall. So Hans Jonas decided to add to his ethics of responsibility a philosophical refutation of materialism, which he called The Power and Impotence of Subjectivity (1981). It opens with this anecdote: Three young natural scientists, who were all later to become famous scholars, gathered themselves together in Berlin in 1845 and “swore to one another . . . to validate the truth that no other forces are active in organisms other than the common ones found in physics and chemistry.” The three remained faithful to their oath for their entire lives. Unfortunately, as Jonas remarks, “in the fact of taking an oath, they entrusted the power of control over the behavior of their brains to something thoroughly non-physical, namely, to their relationship to truth, the very existence of which they were thus denying in the content of their vow.”
To be able to promise something, to make an effort to keep the promise, with the danger of being able to break it also—all of this cannot be the effect of forces of a purely material sort. The development of a scientific theory is a spiritual process, even when this theory is materialistic. Alfred North Whitehead's ironic remark about those Darwinists who disavow any form of directedness toward an end is well known: “Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting object for study.” Human action is not conceivable as anything other than as oriented toward a goal, and there is hardly an example of any activity more goal-oriented than scientific activity.
A remark by Darwin in a letter of 1870 to J. Hooker is pertinent: “I cannot look at the universe as a result of blind chance. Yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design or indeed any design of any kind, in the detail.” The contemplation of nature, the exploration of the universe, of the earth, of life, speaks to us with overwhelming evidence of order, planning, fine-tuning, intention, and purpose.
The question is: Who recognizes the design? And how is it recognized? Darwin says that he cannot recognize any sort of design in the details of the explorations of nature. And this will indeed be difficult based on a strictly scientific, quantitative, measure-oriented methodology. We do, however, speak constantly about nature having established this or that, in such and such a manner, as though nature were a spirit-endued subject that sets goals for itself and acts in a way that is directed toward them. Even strict Darwinists, indeed Darwin himself, speak repeatedly of nature in this anthropomorphic manner, even when they afterward correct themselves and say, with someone like Julian Huxley: “At first sight the biological sector seems full of purpose. Organisms are built as if purposely designed. . . . But as the genius of Darwin showed, the purpose is only an apparent one.”
So does nature only act as though it had goals? In the fifth of his proofs for God's existence, St. Thomas Aquinas pointed in the direction of a manner of thinking that helps us proceed here. We can see, he claims, that the bodily things in nature act, in a goal-oriented manner, to attain to that which is good for them. They do not attain their goal through coincidence, but purposefully. Yet they do not arrive at this through their own intentions (after all, they have no cognition); rather, they attain their goal through a cognizing agent who steers them as an archer does his arrow. This cognizing agent, who steers all natural things toward their goal, we call God.
There is a fascinating text by St. Thomas that articulates clearly the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic teleology: “Nature is to be distinguished,” he writes, “from technology only in that nature is an internal causal principle, while technology presents us with an external principle.” In order to indicate the “internal principle,” Thomas makes use of a comparison: “If the technology of a ship's structure were immanent to the wood, then the nature (of the wood) would bring forth the ship, such as normally happens through technology.” Somewhat later in the passage, Thomas explains again: “Nature is nothing other than a certain technology, namely, the skill of God, which is infused into things, and which is directed towards its determinate end by the things themselves.” And again, Thomas explicates this using the image of a ship structure: “This is as though the builder of a ship could impart the capacity to the wood pieces of being moved from within themselves to bring forth the structure of the ship.”
The existence of a ship leads to the question “Who constructed it?”—and so the self-evident experience of nature (as being directed toward an end, as ordered, and as beautiful) leads to the question “Where do these marks of intelligence come from?” Evolutionary theory, with its scientific method, cannot provide an answer here; it can only explore measurable and mechanical causes. An oft-cited remark by George C. Simpson runs: “Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that does not have him in mind. He was not planned.” If Simpson had said merely that no plan according to which mankind came about may be discerned using the purely quantitative-mechanical methods of scientific inquiry, then this assertion could be correct. But this way of looking at things—this “self-limitation of reason,” in the words of Benedict XVI's Regensburg address—is not “given by nature” but is a deliberate, methodological, and eminently goal-oriented choice.
The conscious limitation of its point of view to the countable and the measurable, to material conditions and interconnections, has permitted formidable advances of the natural sciences, allowing modern man to dominate and control nature for his own needs to an amazing extent. But it would be highly problematic if one wished to declare as simply nonexistent everything that is here being methodologically suppressed, starting with the faculties of reason and free will that permit this methodological choice to begin with. It is true that the genetic code of human beings differs only very slightly from that of chimpanzees. Yet only a human being can arrive at the notion of exploring the genetic codes of human beings and chimpanzees.
So how can a non-reductionist, properly philosophical understanding of nature help us gain a clearer view of our modern debates? Think for a moment about the name of Darwin's famous work The Origin of Species. Do they actually exist, these species? Can they be grasped based on a purely quantitative method? Is there even room for them in a theory of evolution? Is not everything that we refer to as a species merely a snapshot of some similar organisms wandering through an arbitrary fitness landscape? On the level of the measurable and the quantifiable, species and genera are empty words. But our prescientific human intellect grasps well that there exists the species dog that is essentially different from the species cat. Is the prescientific distinction between dogs and cats therefore unscientific?
The necessity of trusting the “eyes of the soul”—the human intellect in its normal, everyday operation—becomes still clearer when it concerns the question that is today frequently dismissed as unscientific because it lies beyond the purely material: the question regarding essences and substantial form. Overcoming the materialistic vision of evolutionism urgently entails recapturing the concept of form, or gestalt, for science. The great Swiss zoologist Adolf Portmann placed special emphasis on this point in his critique of Darwinism. Everything living discloses itself as form, as the expression of an internal principle that is more than its material components. The exploration of biochemical detail can methodologically prescind from the question regarding form, but, in the long run, if it does not wish to devolve into blind science, it cannot neglect inquiry into what makes plants, dogs, etc., into that which they themselves are.
Moreover, consider the question of reading the traces of God in creation. Is this not the task of science? The early scientists, from Copernicus through Galileo to Newton, were convinced of this. Next to the book of the Bible, they recognize the book of creation, within which the Creator speaks to us in readable, perceptible language. What is overlooked in a materialistic concept of science is the sense of wonder about the very readability of reality. Scientific exploration of nature is possible only because it gives us an answer. Nature is “built” such that our spirit can penetrate its structure and laws.
As I said last year in FIRST THINGS (“The Designs of Science,” January 2006), “The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds—the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds.” What could be more fundamental to science than the assumption that the explorability and thereby the cognizability of reality arises due to its bearing the handwriting of its author? God speaks the language of his creation, and our spirit, which is likewise his creation, is able to perceive it, to hear it, to comprehend it.
This, in the end, is the reason modern science grew in the nurturing soil of the Judeo-Christian belief in creation. A materialistically constricted science studies the letters but cannot read the text. Exploring and analyzing the material letters is the presupposition for being able to read the immaterial text. But the letters do not constitute the text itself. They are only the material bearer. Science that confines itself exclusively to material conditions is one-handed and thereby one-sided. There is missing from it that which actually marks a human being as human: his gift of elevating himself over material conditions with reason and intuition so as to press ahead to meaning, to truth, to the “message of the Author of the text.”
Modern science plays another important role that we must consider. It can readily lead us to questions of dysteleology and “natural evil.” We consider the world-picture drawn by modern science and ask why we have this laborious, complicated path of cosmic evolution. Why its countless trials and blind alleys, its billions of years of time and expansion of the universe? Why the gigantic explosions of supernovae, the cooking of the elements in the nuclear fusion of the stars, the excruciating grind of biological evolution with its endless start-ups and extinctions, its catastrophes and barbarities, right up to the unfathomable brutalities of life and survival to the present day? Does it not make more sense here to see the whole as the blind play of coincidences in an unplanned nature? Is this not more honest than the attempts at a theodicy of a Leibniz? Is it not more plausible simply to say, “Yes, the world is just that cruel”?
One thing should be clear, and it requires a frankly theological explication: Let us not be excessively hasty in wanting to demonstrate “intelligent design” everywhere as a matter of apologetics. Like Job, we do not know the answer to suffering and chaos. We have been given only one answer—but that from God himself: The Logos, through whom and in whom everything was created, has assumed flesh; the cross is the key to God's plan and decisions. As important and indispensable as renewed effort in matters of natural philosophy may be, the Word from the cross is God's final Wisdom. For through his holy cross, he has reconciled the entire world. And the cross is the gate to the Resurrection.
If the Resurrection of Christ is, as Pope Benedict said in his 2006 Easter Homily, the “explosion of love” that has dissolved the indissoluble network of “death and becoming,” then we may also say that this is the goal of evolution. We know its meaning from its end, its fulfillment. Even if it sometimes seems without goal or direction in its individual steps, the lengthy path has had a purpose toward Easter and from Easter onward. We gladly affirm the Christian understanding, derived from Greek and Jewish culture before, that unaided reason can attain basic knowledge of the purposes built into nature and the intelligence behind it. But it is only through God's self-revelation in Christ, and our response of faith, that we can begin to glimpse the ultimate purpose of the cosmos and to trust in God's provident care of all cosmic details. It is not that “the path is the goal.” Rather, the Resurrection and the Second Coming of the Lord are the purpose of the path.
Christoph Cardianl Schönborn is the archbishop of Vienna and general editor of The Catechism of the Catholic Church. This text is adapted from a talk first given at a pontifical colloquium on creation and evolution in September 2006. Ignatius Press will publish the full text of the conference's proceedings in a forthcoming volume. This text was translated from its original German by Michael Wenisch.