Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Fideist and Materialist?

As a controversy of sorts has played out on the pages of First Things between Cardinal Schonborn and Catholic physicist Stephen M. Barr over the topic of intelligent design, a number of people have found themselves fearing that Barr is a Fideist, someone who believes that one can only know about the existence of God by mean of a leap of faith, and that evidence for this cannot be found within the created world.

This has caused Mark Shea, among others, to fear that perhaps the thinking of Catholics such as Barr is not in line with the statement of Vatican I that God may be known from His creation by means of human reason.

Now, to a great extent I inherited my interest in the alleged "science vs. religion" clash from my father, a life-long science educator and devout Catholic. Having just flown out to the ancestral roost to help get ready for the funeral, I was looking through my dad's shelf of books on the topic (the family library runs to some four to five thousand volumes) and one caught my eye: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen M. Barr.

The book jacket says, among other things: A considerable amount of public debate and media print has been devoted to the "war between science and religion." In, ....Barr demonstrates that what is really at war with religion is not science itself, but a philosophy called scientific materialism. [This book] argues that the great discoveries of modern physics are more compatible with the central teachings of Christianity and Judaism about God, the cosmos, and the human soul than with the atheistic viewpoint of scientific materialism.

Clearly, I'm going to have to read this book, and this also makes me all the more eager to see Barr's article on Intelligent Design which is due out in the next issue of First Things.

I have several other books in the queue to finish first, so it may be a while before I'm able to write a review, but a couple things strike me right off from the bits that I've been able to skim this morning:

1) Barr is doing something rather different from what 'scientific' Intelligent Design of the Behe or Dembski variety attempts to do with biology. Barr is not claiming that specific theories in modern physics "prove" there is a God, but rather that they describe the sort of world that human reason suggests God would have created. Further, he points out that in many ways the philosophy of materialism is required to provide more complicated glosses upon current physics to justify its conclusions than Christians are to justify theirs.

2) Barr seems to be quite clear on the distinction between scientific theories themselves and the philosophical beliefs that one must layer onto them in order to make cohesive sense of the world. Thus, he seems quite clear that there is one body of current scientific knowledge with Christians and materialists then interpret in different ways to support their differing beliefs about the nature of the world.

3) People often complain that Catholic's who argue against the Intelligent Design movement spend all their energy arguing against other Christians and little energy arguing against the forces of materialism. Here Barr is spending an entire book on arguing against exactly those forces.

As I said, I'm very curious to see exactly what Barr has to say about Intelligent Design generally in the next issue of First Things. I don't know that we would fully agree on the issue, but I'm very much encouraged by his general philosophical stance.


John Farrell said...

I'm also hoping that Barr responds to Cardinal Schonborn's piece in this month's First Things.

The one main problem I see with the Cardinal's piece is his claim that Natural Selection is purely random. I know of no living evolutionary biologist who would agree with this. However, in looking into some related articles, I'm wondering whether he bases this on the writings of Jacques Monod, the French biologist (since deceased). His book Chance and Necessity was written in the 1970s, and there's no question that Monod had no problem with bald anti-metaphysical statements....

jenny said...

There are plenty of evolutionary biologists who would argue that it is completely random. These are almost always the rabid atheists who cannot bear the thought of directionality to evolution. However, it doesn't take much of a thought experiment to see that some characters, once evolved, are not likely to ever face a pressure to de-evolve. Intellegence seems the most obvious.

Anonymous said...

mrsdrp, that's a pretty ridiculous straw man. Name me one biologist, atheist or otherwise, who denies Dolo's Law, or thinks there are no causal conseuqneces to any particular directions or "good tricks." Your claims are almost certianly a misunderstanding of the actual terms and issues under debate (which generally concern ideas of whether particular directions are inevitable, whether complexity is an overall direction or just the outcome of variance, and so on)