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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Catholic theologian trashes both Darwinism and ID

Fr. Edwin Oakes, a widely read theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, Illinois, weighed in last week, in Zenit, (an international Catholic news agency) against both Darwinism and ID.

On Darwinism , he says,

If evolution simply means "descent with modification," then I would agree that evolution must be regarded as confirmed by scientific "fact" -- meaning by that tendentious word a reality that no one can afford to deny, except at the price of obscurantism.

[ ... ]

The problem comes from the conflation of Darwinism with evolution strictly defined. Now Darwinism asserts not just the fact of "descent with modification"; it also claims to know the "how" of evolution: Evolution occurred, it claims, by means of something it calls "natural selection."

Again, if that term is strictly defined, it simply means that only those organisms that reach reproductive age get to transmit their genes; and if those genes were somehow "responsible" for helping that organism reach reproductive age, then that "helpfulness" will likely contribute to later success as well.

As with the doctrine that all life began as a single-celled organism, I hardly see how such an obvious insight can be regarded as controversial. But then again, we have to ask: How much does the concept of natural selection actually explain the "how" of evolution? Certainly, this question is a very controversial point among philosophers of biology.

But leaving aside whether natural selection actually does any explanatory work, the importation of that concept into human relations has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster for the 20th century: Karl Marx, John D. Rockefeller and Adolf Hitler were all enthusiastic Darwinians.

For that reason, I would say that any application of Darwinian principles outside the restricted sphere of organic evolution is not only not "accepted as scientific fact" but that it has also been massively disconfirmed by history.

Fr. Oakes’s comments imply, without directly saying it, that human history is not simply the history of an accidentally naked ape. After all, if it were, Darwinism would not have been such a social disaster as he emphasizes.

About intelligent design, he says

Q: What are your objections to the Intelligent Design movement?

Father Oakes: Primarily that ID advocates seem regularly to confuse finality with design. Now because people only design things for a purpose, the two concepts are too often conflated. But they are different.

[ ... ]

I also object to the way the ID Movement conflates the Thomistic distinction between primary and secondary causality. The advocates of this movement claim that if it can be proved scientifically that God must intervene on occasion to get various species up and running, then this will throw the atheist Darwinians into a panicked rout.

I disagree. My view is that, according to St. Thomas, secondary causality can be allowed full rein without threatening God's providential oversight of the world.

Q: But aren't you making God recede from the world, just as the deists did with their concept of the clockmaker God?

Father Oakes: Actually, no. Remember that for Aquinas God's primary causality does not refer to an initial moment of creation, after which secondary causality kicks in and runs things from then on out.

No, God must sustain the world in each moment of its existence. God keeps the world in being because God is "He Who Is." God is Being itself; and because of God's self-sufficient Being, the universe "is," albeit derivatively.

[ ... ]

You have to read the whole thing to get a good sense of his argument; it’s too long to reproduce here.
(Note: You will also have to hunt and peck at bit in the archives for July 27 and 28 for these files, called “Evolution in the Eyes of the Church,” parts 1 and 2, because they don’t display as individual files. Zenit needs to update its documentation system.)

Meanwhile, ID advocate Angus Menuge, who teaches Philosophy and Computer Science at Concordia University, sent me the following comment (not linked anywhere, so I am reproducing all of it):

What a shame Fr. Oakes remarks are full of the same condescension and misrepresentation of ID as his earlier articles, e.g in First Things , where he has been unable to show his interlocutors the minimal respect required by any civilized academic discourse.

ID allows for intervention, but does *not* require it every time a design inference is drawn. I may infer that an "irreducibly complex" structure is designed without supposing that its assembly instructions are the result of a special miracle.

I respect Thomistic theology, but not the way Oakes marries it to an unbiblical Barthian denial of natural theology beyond the pathetic appreciation of "Oooh isn't that a nice sunset!!"( i.e. common-sense, intuitvive, but ultimately indefensible intuitions of design (plenty of atheists like sunsets too) that are not worthy of being called "knowledge" according to any credible epistemology).

ID is not committed to conflating "the Thomistic distinction between primary and secondary causality." It maintains, as does Scripture, that teleology is detectable. To say that teleology is going on but is not detectable is neither Scriptural nor (necessarily) warranted by the evidence (there is none) and promotes a Barthian modernist fideism, where one has to hold in faith even those non-salvific facts that the Scriptures themselves says are available (though suppressed) by all men.

Particularly disturbing to me are Oakes' uses of rhetorical phrases, assuring us that God can still be working providentially, but which are lacking in any concrete meaning.

If this is really the best the church has to offer, atheism never seemed more intellectually respectable.

Hey, chill out, prof! That may be the best Fr. Oakes has to offer, but Fr. Oakes is not, in isolation, the Catholic Church.

My own view is that many twentieth century Christian thinkers so inured themselves to a world in which Darwinism and naturalism are really true - and religion serves only a psychological purpose for those who believe it - that they have no clear sense that Darwinism and naturalism might actually be false.

I mean, they do not write as if they believe that these concepts are false, even when they maintain that they are.

Fr. Oakes appears to want to keep Darwinism in a sort of cage in the zoo of natural history. But the trouble is, Darwinism claims to define what human life is, so it won’t stay in that cage.

These twentieth century Christian thinkers (theistic evolutionists) seem always to want to reassure us that, after all, we should not expect to find concrete evidence of God’s work in the world. But what if we can/do find it? Then the status quo, prior to Darwinism and naturalism, is restored.

Religion will still be a hard sell because so much is wrong with the world that many people understandably doubt traditional Western doctrines of God. But many always did doubt, didn’t they?

What’s different about the ID crisis is this: If nature is not all there is, and if life did not come about purely by chance events acted on by natural law, then some belief that includes meaning and purpose for the universe must be true. I think that is the real reason so many thinkers left over from the twentieth century are in a spazz about the intelligent design hypothesis, and filling the media with their fears, worries and complaints. All the concessions they have made turn out to be for nothing.

Of course, Fr. Oakes’s religion – also mine, as it happens – could, in theory, be false. Any statement positive enough to be true can also be false. But if ID is true, what would make Roman Catholicism false would not be the triumph of Darwinism or naturalism, but of another religion or philosophy (other than nihilism, of course, which is ruled out if naturalism is not true). I don’t expect that to happen, but I do expect a lot of tantrums from public intellectuals as the problems of Darwinism and naturalism mount, and the old order slowly decreases in relevance.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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