Does Reason Need God?

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s “Finding Design in Nature” from the July 7 New York Times, still generates a considerable stir since its publication.

Although his precisely worded statement merely reiterates the Catholic Church’s critical view of evolutionism (see John Paul II, Fides et ratio, no. 54; General Audience, 27 May 1998, No. 5), some believe that Schönborn’s “unofficial” clarification signals a new and worrisome development in Roman Catholic doctrine. (See Prof. Lawrence Krauss’s July 12 Letter to Pope Benedict XVI.) Reacting to Cardinal Schönborn’s clarification, professor Kenneth Miller, one of the signatories of Krauss’s letter, issued a pointed response, “Darwin, Design, and the Catholic Faith.”

Miller’s response is instructive, inasmuch as it illustrates a prevalent misunderstanding of the Catholic Church’s nuanced position on evolutionary theory. In his response professor Miller declares:

“But the cardinal is wrong in asserting that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is inherently atheistic. Consider these words from George Gaylord Simpson: ‘The process [of evolution] is wholly natural in its operation. This natural process achieves the aspect of purpose without the intervention of a purposer; and it has produced a vast plan without the concurrent action of a planner. It may be that the initiation of the process and the physical laws under which it functions had a purpose and that this mechanistic way of achieving a plan is the instrument of a Planner — of this still deeper problem the scientist, as scientist, cannot speak.’ Exactly. Science is, just as Pope John Paul II said, silent on the issue of ultimate purpose, an issue that lies outside the realm of scientific inquiry. This means that biological evolution, correctly understood, does not make the claim of purposelessness. It does not address what Simpson called the ‘deeper problem,’ leaving that problem, quite properly, to the realm of faith.”

Passing over debatable aspects of Simpson’s (deistic) line of thought, I wish to rebut Miller’s belief that Pope John Paul II’s teaching supports his, rather than Cardinal Schönborn’s, position. During a 1985 general audience, John Paul II offered a particularly important observation:

“Scientific proofs in the modern sense of the word are valid only for things perceptible to the senses, since it is only on such things that scientific instruments of investigation can be used. Science must recognize its limits and its inability to reach the existence of God. It can neither affirm nor deny his existence.”

That seems entirely consistent with the view defended by Miller, who is fond of citing Pope John Paul’s Oct. 22, 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. John Paul added a key qualification, however:

“From this, however, we must not draw the conclusion that scientists in their scientific studies are unable to find valid reasons for admitting the existence of God. If science as such cannot reach God, the scientist who has an intelligence, the object of which is not limited to things of sense perception, can discover in the world reasons for affirming a Being which surpasses it. Many scientists have made and are making this discovery” (general audience, July 10, 1985).

The foregoing indicates that Miller has misconstrued Pope John Paul’s actual teaching. John Paul affirmed that God’s existence cannot be demonstrated by relying exclusively on the methodology of the experimental sciences. It would be incorrect to infer, however, that John Paul endorsed the commonly held fideist opinion that the discovery of divine providence is restricted to the “realm of faith.”

Although a strict demonstration of the operation of divine intelligence in the natural order is not a properly scientific proof in the modern sense, human reason can use empirical scientific data to arrive at true knowledge that God exists. This is precisely the anti-fideist stance of Cardinal Schönborn, who said:

“[F]aced with scientific claims like neo-Darwinism — invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science, the Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of [blind and unguided] ‘chance and necessity’ are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.”

Exactly. In contrast, Miller and others seem to embrace the fideist opinion, which precludes a thorough integration of faith and reason. (See my article, “Darwin and Design: Exploring a Debate,” in Truth Matters, ed. John Trapani [Washington, D.C.: American Maritain Association/Catholic University of America Press, 2004].)
Unlike Cardinal Schönborn’s traditional Catholic stance, Miller’s fideist opinion finds considerable support in our public schools, which typically deny the intellectual legitimacy of science instructors’ posing deeper ontological questions in the classroom.

For the sake of the common good and of scientific rationality, which depend ultimately on a divine intelligence that eludes scientism’s reductionist horizon, one may hope that our public schools will soon adopt a far less benighted attitude toward the divine vis-à-vis the life of the human mind, and acknowledge Cardinal Schönborn’s central insight regarding the principle of finality.

Peter A. Pagan Aguiar Ph.D. is a professor at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn.