Saturday, February 18, 2006

Schönborn, Barr, and William of Baskerville

First came Cardinal Christof Schönborn’s New York Times essay last July. Then came Stephen Barr’s critique in the October edition of First Things. Now Cardinal Schönborn’s response from the January edition of First Things is available for online reading. Keep an eye on the First Things website for when they make Stephen Barr’s response in the February edition available online. The discussion is one of the most fascinating to and fro’s since America carried the Universal/Local Church debate between Cardinals Kasper and (then) Ratzinger.

What intrigued me most about Cardinal Schönborn’s reply? The simple statement 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, and also that its mode of knowing the corporeal world takes priority over all other forms of human knowledge.”

The illogical circularity of the argument is more than evident, as is the hubris involved. I also appreciate the good Cardinal’s insistence that he is not arguing theology over against science (which would, he demonstrates, be simply positing deism over against positivism, when in fact the two tend to coexist quite happily) but rather using philosophy to critique both the positivistic approach of ideological “science” and deistic theologies which claim that intelligent causation in nature can only be known by faith (which, he notes, is a curious new application of the dictum “sola fides”).

Schönborn also raises the point that the notion of “randomness” plays a “quite different role in thermodynamics, quantum theory, and other natural sciences” compared to “the randomness of neo-Darwinian biology”. In the case of the first, he says, “the random behaviour of parts is embedded in and constrained by a deeply mathematical and precise conceptual structure of the whole that makes the overall behaviour of the system orderly and intelligible.” “Randomness” in Neo-Darwinian biology, however, is supposed to be completely unrelated to anything. “Yet”, he points out, “out of all that unconstrained, unintelligible mess emerges, deus ex machina, the precisely ordered and extraordinarily intelligible world of living organisms.” As Fr Neuhaus would say: “Go figure.”

Schönborn takes up Barr’s excellent example of the randomness of numberplates observed on a transcontinental road journey. Yes, the state of registration for each successive numberplate is “random” in the sense of unpredictable, but when one stands back, one can detect a pattern, viz. that in each state through which one passes, numberplates from that state predominate. Thus, the Darwinian “takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze”, whereas, “if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming patter.”

Now I just happen to be rereading Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose at the moment, and I came across the following passage. The context is this: Br William and Adso have been lost inside the maze of the library, but once outside the library, they survey the aedificium from outside, and use their reason to solve the puzzle of the labyrinth. Br William observes that:

"Thus God knows the world, because He conceived it in His mind, as if from the outside, before it was created, and we do not know its rule, because we live inside it, having found it already made...The creations of art [such as the aedificium, can be known from the outside], because we retrace in our minds the operations of the artificer. Not the creations of nature, because they are not the work of our minds."

While, William of Baskerville seems to deny that which Cardinal Schönborn insists upon, nevertheless there is a connecting point on which they agree. Whereas the physicist can (to a certain extent) stand outside of any (for eg.) thermodynamic system he may create, the neo-Darwinist (like the rest of us) is hindered in the search for an observable design or pattern in biology simply from the fact that he too is a part of the biological labyrinth. Br William observes that “the creations of art” can be known from the outside “because we retrace in our minds the operations of the artificer”, that is, we have enough in common with the artist that we can understand the making of brush strokes and the mixing of paints. But do our intellects have enough in common with the Intellect that designed the world in which we live to be able to detect the “intelligent design” within that universe? Cardinal Schönborn insists that the Catholic tradition answers this question an emphatic “Yes”. We shall wait to see what Stephen Barr has to say…

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