Whether it be a marriage, a parish, a business, a school, or a best friend, we know that a breakdown in communication can be devastating. When the language we use is not properly understood, misconceptions can emerge that lead to a lack of trust, ultimately injuring a healthy relationship. Compound this by words that are used to hurt and/or divide, and one can experience wounds that scar for generations to come. I have given a great deal of thought to this topic of communication when trying to understand the relationship between faith and science. Whether it be the trial of Galileo or more modern discussions about evolution and the role of gravity in creation, it seems clear that at the heart of many of these tensions are either a manipulation of truth for political ends (Galileo’s trial) or a misunderstanding of terms when sincere attempts are made to provide an accurate description of how the world works (evolution and gravity). Given some of the insightful reflections on the history of Galileo (check out Br. Guy’s The Galileo Affair), I will not treat the political scandals of the past between Church and science, but encourage you to seek out sages much wiser than I to understand these delicate issues (A very good resource is Br. Guy’s DVD series entitled, “Galileo: Science, Faith, and the Catholic Church). I would like to focus upon two questions, one in this post and a second in a future post, that have created significant tension between science, philosophy, and theology: The language of biological evolution and what is meant by creation Ex Nihilo (from nothing). This post will deal with the question of evolution and I will treat the question of “creation from nothing” in a future post.
To begin with, I will explore the language of evolution by asking the question, “Can a faithful Christian believe in evolution?” This is a subject I have explored in the past in regard to Papal statements about the subject (for more information, check out my post: Catholicism, Evolution, and Intelligent Design: What is the Relationship?) Despite a number of Papal statements in support of evolution, there are some who still question whether or not Christianity and evolution are compatible. An example that many will cite is Christoph Cardinal Schönborn’s editorial in the July 7, 2005 edition of the New York Times. In this piece, Cardinal Schönborn states the following:
Evolution in the sense of common
ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science. (Finding Design in Nature. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, New York Times, July, 7, 2005)
In this piece, prior to the publication of his book on faith and science entitled, Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith, it seems very clear that Cardinal Schönborn is arguing that Christianity and evolution are not compatible. As a young, non-scientist priest, I, too, presumed that, given the well earned reputation of Cardinal Schönborn as one of the brightest intellects among the College of Cardinals, that perhaps I misunderstood St. John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that displayed a great openness to evolution. Was what I presumed to be compatible now incompatible?
It was at this time that I discovered the writings of Dr. Stephen Barr. Dr. Barr is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. In his piece entitled, The Design of Evolution, Dr. Barr explains that Cardinal Schönborn slipped into a confusion of language in regard to the use of the word “random.” Dr. Barr explains that Cardinal Schönborn clearly connects the idea of random variation and natural selection with the presumption that these are “unguided, unplanned” processes, divorced from divine providence. Dr. Barr argues that, from the standpoint of philosophy and theology, if the meaning of the word “random” meant unguided, unplanned, and meaningless, then Cardinal Schönborn’s critique would be correct. However, Dr. Barr argues that the scientific understanding of the word “random” does not point to something that lacks meaning, but rather points to a gap in our knowledge that needs to be explored. If a biologist, for example, were to use the word “random” to argue that the evolution of things in this world were meaningless, this scientist would be using the word in a rather careless fashion or would possibly be promoting a personal philosophical worldview. Instead, the word “random” is better understood as “uncorrelated.” Dr. Barr provides a simple analogy to demonstrate the difference between “uncorrelated” and “unplanned/meaningless.”
My children like to observe the license plates of the cars that pass us on the highway, to see which states they are from. The sequence of states exhibits a degree of randomness: a car from Kentucky, then New Jersey, then Florida, and so on”because the cars are uncorrelated: Knowing where one car comes from tells us nothing about where the next one comes from. And yet, each car comes to that place at that time for a reason. Each trip is planned, each guided by some map and schedule. Each driver’s trip fits into the story of his life in some intelligible way, though the story of these drivers’ lives are not usually closely correlated with the other drivers’ lives. (The Design of Evolution by Stephen M. Barr, First Things. paragraph 13)
Dr. Barr provides other analogies and reflections, each pointing to the same end: Random, in the scientific sense, does not disprove divine providence. Further, the theological vision of divine providence does not need to exclude evolutionary processes that are random since our understanding of the world is deeply rooted in contingency.
Why is there statistical randomness and lack of correlation in our world? It is because events do not march in lockstep, according to some simple formula, but are part of a vastly complex web of contingency. The notion of contingency is important in Catholic theology, and it is intimately connected to what in ordinary speech would be called “chance.”
Communion and Stewardship settles this point. “Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality,” the document observes. “But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a purely contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity, happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency.’ In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.” (Ibid.)
My take away from this is that just because something is random it does not mean that it is meaningless. We may currently lack the understanding of why certain natural phenomenon occur, but science itself presumes that, with time and study, those “gaps” of knowledge will be closed. In fact, for science to say that “random variation” is meaningless seems to present similar problems as does arguing for God’s existence by looking for “irreducibly complexity” in nature. If a scientist were to observe a random process of nature and declare it meaningless, but later this process emerged as an essential key in understanding the development of other species, wouldn’t this scientist experience professional embarrassment similar to a person of faith who would declare that God could be proven through something in nature that was irreducibly complex, unexplained by evolution, only to have time and research reveal that their example was not so complex after all and easily explained by evolution? I am not a good enough student of either school of thought to offer a definitive answer to my own question. Nevertheless, as I try to understand the logic of each, there seems to be a similarity in the issues that can arise for both ideologies.
These questions aside, a key point I learned from this exploration was that even the brightest of intellects who have the best of intentions to communicate the truth can stumble when there is confusion of how language functions between different intellectual disciplines and underscores the need for a clear communication of meaning in the words we use between faith and science. If these types of misunderstandings can occur between professional scientists and Cardinal theologians, how much more for those of us who are not scientists or theologians, seeking to discover a language that gives voice to truth, trying to understand the material world and non-material existence?
In conclusion, can the perceived tension between evolution and God as Creator be fully addressed by clarifying a breakdown in communication over the word “random?” Of course, the answer is no. As is the case with many strained relationships, there isn’t just one issue that leads to a breakup. Nevertheless, I do feel that these explorations are needed for both believer and non-believer if we are to move away from faith and science as adversaries and toward a position of faith and science as dialogue partners in search of truth. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Barr makes reference to a document from the International Theological Commission (headed at that time by then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) entitled, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.” In this document, there is a careful analysis of the relationship between faith and science. I will conclude by providing a paragraph from this document for your consideration and feedback (of course, it would be best to read the entire document if you have the time). Next time, I will explore the question of “creation from nothing” (Ex Nihilo) and ask if there is a communication breakdown between faith and science on this concept or not? Have a great week!
With respect to the evolution of conditions favorable to the emergence of life, Catholic tradition affirms that, as universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence, but also the cause of causes. God’s action does not displace or supplant the activity of creaturely causes, but enables them to act according to their natures and, nonetheless, to bring about the ends he intends. In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain in act all those secondary causes whose activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order which he intends to produce. Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation. Although there is scientific debate about the degree of purposiveness or design operative and empirically observable in these developments, they have de facto favored the emergence and flourishing of life. Catholic theologians can see in such reasoning support for the affirmation entailed by faith in divine creation and divine providence. In the providential design of creation, the triune God intended not only to make a place for human beings in the universe but also, and ultimately, to make room for them in his own trinitarian life. Furthermore, operating as real, though secondary causes, human beings contribute to the reshaping and transformation of the universe. (Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God. Paragraphs 68)