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

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thoughts on Schonborn and Design

I've been meaning for some time now to put down some organized thoughts on Cardinal Schonborn's recent First Things article about The Design of Science. Unfortunately between being gone and then trying to catch up on my return to the office, time has been at a premium. However, here it goes...

Schonborn's essay hit a lot of different topics, all of them interesting, so I've done my best to pull out the most interesting bits in an order that fits my purpose. The quotes are not, however, necessarily in order. I strongly encourage you to take the time to read his whole essay, if you haven't already.

The overarching theme of the piece, it seems to me, is the proper alignment of the different forms of knowledge which the human person may use in contemplating both the natural world and the supernatural, but most importantly the whole of the world, natural and supernatural, in its full and intermingled form.

Schonborn's fear seems to be that the concessions to "neo-Darwinism" made by Stephen M. Barr in his own First Things article (critiquing Schonborn's NY Times editorial on the topic) destroy the possibility of seeing the world in it's totality.

To quote Schonborn at length:

Barr's essay addresses at some length the question of design in biology, but does not clearly affirm that reason can grasp the reality of design without the aid of faith. If my reading is correct (and I hope I am wrong), in that respect Barr has followed the overwhelming trend of Catholic commentators on the question of neo-Darwinian evolution, who gladly discuss its compatibility with the truths of faith but seldom bother to discuss whether and how it is compatible with the truths of reason.

Perhaps now that the role of fideism is in view, I can profitably return to the question of the essential meaning of the term "neo-Darwinism." If, as many seem to think, neo-Darwinism serves as a valid "design-defeating hypothesis" at the level of human reason but is rescued from any ultimately improper conclusions only by the intervention of theology, then it seems that my expansive definition is fully vindicated. If reason is incapable of grasping real teleology in living things and their history, then neo-Darwinism -- which obviously is incapable of taking into account theological truths -- can truly be said to be a theory that asserts, in the words of my original essay, that evolution is "an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection." What so many Catholics seem to be saying is that, so far as we can determine with our unaided human intellects, according to even the "metaphysically modest" version of neo-Darwinism, there is no real plan, purpose, or design in living things, and absolutely no directionality to evolution; yet we know those things to be true by faith. In other words, a "metaphysically modest" neo-Darwinism is not so modest after all. It means a Darwinism that does not conflict with knowledge about reality known through faith alone. In the debate about design in nature, sola fides takes on an entirely new meaning.
There seems to me to be something very right about this line of thing, and also something somewhat wrong. The cardinal makes a very important point when he says that we do not know about God's creation of the universe only through faith. We can approach these truths by means of human reason unaided by divine revelation, as some of the ancient philosophers living centuries before Christ did indeed do with some success. This point is not made nearly often enough, and I think that it is very much a good thing that this area (including it's dogmatic statement in Vatican I) is getting so much attention these days, despite the fuzzy thinking that often follows on hard upon the introduction of the debate.

However, I think Schonborn also makes something of a mistake in assigning fideism to Barr. In his essay, Barr attempted to address the specific claim that "neo-Darwinism" is compatible with Christianity because it assigns the creation of life to a "totally random" process by asserting that processes that are "random" in the sense that science uses the term are by no means beyond the divine providence of God in theological terms. Thus, a physically "random" process does not exclude God's divine causation.

Now, it's certainly true that for the purposes of the question at hand Barr dealt only with whether a theological statement of God's providence was compatible with a scientific statement that evolution is driven by a filtering of random mutations. However, scientific statements in no was constitute the full set of possible statement which can be derived from human reason. (As is one of Schonborn's main points.) Certainly Barr didn't address the question of deriving evidence of God's design from human reason without turning to revelation, but I don't think we should take that to mean that Barr denies that such a thing is possible.

What I do think underlies Barr's failure to mention human reason's ability to find evidence apart from revelation for God's existence is that he is here speaking strictly about scientific knowledge according to the modern definition of science. Schonborn in principle has not problem with this, saying:
If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes' and Bacon's project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise. It is obviously compatible with the full truth that the world of living beings is replete with formality and finality. It comes as no surprise that reductionist science cannot recognize those very aspects of reality that it excludes -- or at least, seeks to exclude -- by its choice of method.
As Schonborn seems to agree, there's nothing wrong with using a reductionist method to perform scientific inquiry, so long as one know that that is what one is doing. The problem comes in wheremarvelingmarvelling at how much modern science has achieved, makes the assumption that anything which modern science is incapable of examining (anything in the set of causes and subjects from which science intentionally excludes itself) either does not existstrictlyof stictly personal (or emotional) importance. Such idolatry of science is what Schonborn is getting at when he says:
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. Being mechanistic, modern science is also historicist: It argues that a complete description of the efficient and material causal history of an entity is a complete explanation of the entity itself -- in other words, that an understanding of how something came to be is the same as understanding what it is. But Catholic thinking rejects the genetic fallacy applied to the natural world and contains instead a holistic understanding of reality based on all the faculties of reason and all the causes evident in nature -- including the "vertical" causation of formality and finality.
Now, I don't deny for a moment that a number of scientists, science enthusiasts, skeptics and "brights" behave in exactly this manner. One runs into these people all the time, and they're tiresome as well as being dead wrong. I think what Schonborn has identified is an intellectual temptation to which many scientists and those who place too much faith in science's ability to explain the world fall prey. However science itself as a discipline, because of these very restrictions which it places upon itself (and which, I would argue, necessarily stem from its methods of investigation) cannot say that formal and final irrelevantare irrelevent or do not exist. How can one dismiss the existence of something one intentionally refrains from investigating in the first place? While not for a moment denying that many individual people fall into the trap of this very folly, I would maintain that those (both theist and atheist) who are serious about finding the proper boundaries between science and the wider sweep of human knowledge would never claim that the mere fact that science ignores final and formal causality means that such forms of causality do not exist. (Though the atheist or agnostic might maintain that such forms of causality are mental constructs or fundamentally unknowable, he could not validly assert that science proves this in any way.)

Although I have certain disagreements with Schonborn's description of the problem, I couldn't agree with more his recommended solution:
Modern science alone may well be incapable of grasping the key truths about nature that are woven into the fabric of Catholic theology and morality. And theology proper does not supply these key truths either. Prior to both science and theology is philosophy, the "science of common experience." Its role in these crucial matters is indispensable.
I think the cardinal in dead right in saying that we have incredible dearth of knowledge at this place and time regarding philosophy. And since one cannot form idea about many aspects of the world without resorting to philosophy, what results is that many people have very poorly formed philosophical ideas which they do not even realize fail to pass muster -- because they have never studied the basics of philosophy in the first place. Regardless of where the truth may lie in the debate over evolution (I happen to think that the field of evolutionary biology provides the best current explanation of the scientific evidence available) the errors that both sides make that are of significance specifically to Christians are philosophical. Indeed, many of the most egregious errors made by science enthusiasts boil down to what Schonborn terms the "genetic fallacy", that to explain a things physical precursors and history somehow explains its purpose and essence.

* * *

While I agree with Schonborn in much of what he has to say about the necessity of bringing proper philosophical thinking back into the public consciousness, there were two sections of his essay which struck me as such jarring off-notes that I almost think I may have mis-understood them. I shall quote both and present my objections, and perhaps one of you will understand what he is getting at better than I have.

Explaining why he sees no threat in the "randomness" of physics yet has metaphysical objections to the "randomness" of neo-Darwinian evolution he says:

...[W]e must observe that the role of randomness in Darwinian biology is quite different from its role in thermodynamics, quantum theory, and other natural sciences. In those sciences randomness captures our inability to predict or know the precise behavior of the parts of a system (or perhaps, in the case of the quantum world, some intrinsic properties of the system). But in all such cases the "random" behavior of parts is embedded in and constrained by a deeply mathematical and precise conceptual structure of the whole that makes the overall behavior of the system orderly and intelligible.

The randomness of neo-Darwinian biology is nothing like that. It is simply random. The variation through genetic mutation is random. And natural selection is also random: The properties of the ever-changing environment that drive evolution through natural selection are also not correlated to anything, according to the Darwinists.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. While some biologists (and perhaps more to the point some introductory textbooks and popular science articles) spend a lot of time on how the genetic input to natural selection is "totally random", genetic mutations of various sorts are in fact controlled by a number of chemical and molecular factors. Only certain kinds of mutations can take place, and some are more likely than others. When authors go on about the "randomness" of variation (assuming that they do indeed know what they're talking about) they mean that one cannot predict which of the possible sorts of mutation will take place at any given time, of if a mutation will take place at any given time. This is very much the same sort of randomness within certain restraints that one sees in physics. I'm even more confused as to what Schonborn means by the environment being "not correlated to anything". It's true that ssearche does not seach for an overarching "plan" in the environment, but at the same time there are numerous factors (as well as wild card variables such as natural disasters) which control what sorts of variation one will see in the environment. Contrary to the delusions of Day After Tomorrow, the weather doesn't suddenly change patterns out of the blue.

Perhaps Schonborn means that "Darwinists" are far more eager to run with what they believe are the metaphysical implications of randomness than physicists. However, I would argue that there are just as many skeptics out there excited about "random vacuum fluctuations" as a means of creating the universe ex nihilo with "no need for God" as there are biologists eager to assert that Darwin has killed God.

The second section that really bothered me was where Schonborn speaks about teleology in evolution:

But if [the Darwinian biologist] steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don't know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.

Some may object: This is a pure tautology, not scientific knowledge. I have assumed the conclusion, "rigged the game," and so forth. But that is not true. I have simply related two indisputable facts: Evolution happened (or so we will presume, for purposes of this analysis), and our present biosphere is the result. The two sets of facts correlate perfectly. Facts are not tautologies simply because they are indisputably true. If the modern biologist chooses to ignore this indubitable correlation, I have no objection. He is free to define his special science on terms as narrow as he finds useful for gaining a certain kind of knowledge. But he may not then turn around and demand that the rest of us, unrestricted by his methodological self-limitation, ignore obvious truths about reality, such as the clearly teleological nature of evolution.

I suppose the questions here are: What does Schonborn mean by "correlation" and what does he mean by "teleological"? As he says, it certainly seems to be true that evolution occurred (or at least that current evidence points toward occurredon having occured) and that our present world is the result. He also clearly concedes that this is not a "scientific" conclusion per se, so there's no question of arguing about whether this is the domain of science.

I guess what I'm not clear on is why he's assuming that result indicates teleology. Say I'm lucky enough to be playing poker with Schonborn and he deals me a royal flush. (I've never been dealt a royal flush, but then, I've never played poker with Schonborn either.) There is a sense in which you could accurately say that every handling of the cards since they were made contributed to the result of Schonborn dealing me that royal flush. Each earlier hand in the game had a part in setting up the precise configuration of the deck that would result in Schonborn's shuffle producing a royal flush for me. The chances of all this happening are moderately remote (which is to say, really darn unlikely occurrenceery day occurance, though peanuts to the kind of probabilities you get into when trying to predict whether a few trillion microbes will develop the ability to process cellulose over the next few million generations.) However, I don't think you could say there was a teleological nature to our playing, which resulted in this perfect hand.

Now, I'm not saying that there isn't a telos to the world. I think there is. But I'm not clear how Schonborn makes the jump from "it happened even though it was improbably" to "it was meant to happen." Sometimes you get a hole in one because you're a very good golfer. Sometimes you get a hole in one because each time you hit the ball it has to go somewhere.


John Farrell said...

I agree, Brendan. The one real gaffe in his essay is the remark about natural selection being purely random--note, he doesn't mean just the genetic level of the theory--but natural selection itself. No biologist would agree with him. And I can't figure out where he got this, unless perhaps from an old reading of someone like Jacques Monod....who is't exactly considered must reading these days.


Jenny said...

Yeah, the "natural selection is also random" line rankled me. No, it's not, or it wouldn't be selection. And the randomness in biology is exactly the same kind of randomness as in physics. Genetic mutations are caused by complex environmental interactions. The environment is strongly correlated to say, solar influx, axis tilt, and albedo. I thought it was a very good article over all. It's hard for Catholics to walk the middle ground between the extremists.