'Scientism' and the Search for Life's Origin and Purpose

by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, O.P.


This article provides excerpts of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn's lecture, "All Creation Groans: The debate over Creation and Evolution," which he delivered at the 23rd World Youth Day at the University of Sydney on July 16, 2008.

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L'Osservatore Romano


8 – 9 & 11

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Vatican, September 24, 2008

The passion with which the debate over science, reason, and faith is still carried out came to vehement expression once again after my publication of an article on the topic in the New York Times on 7 July 2005.

Why are these questions being discussed with such public engagement and widespread passion since the times of Galileo and Newton?

The question as to whether the universe, and within it our world, and upon it we human beings, owe their origination to "blind chance", or rather to "a supremely wise and good plan", arouses us all, since the concern here is with questions that every human being poses sooner or later: "Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is the purpose of life?"

But should not these questions be directed in the first instance toward religion? Is it sensible to expect an answer to them from the natural sciences? Is science not thereby strained beyond its limits? But what if scientists arrive at the conclusion, on the basis of their research, that everything is to be declared the result of a blind game of chance and necessity?

Assume for the moment that the scientific way of knowing could justifiably lead to such a conclusion: Does the religious answer to the fundamental questions of human beings not then become groundless, and without justification that there exists a purpose, a plan underlying everything, and that everything also has a final end that is willed by God, and that he also realizes?

One may add that if the assertion that the world arises from a plan, from the setting of a goal by the Creator, were to turn out to be scientifically baseless, then faith in a Creator and his Providence would also be irrational.

In that case, belief in creation could at best be based upon a credo quia absurdum. But a belief that is built upon an absurd basis is no belief, but rather an illusion. Is faith in a Creator an illusion of the sort that those like Sigmund Freud sought to discredit?

Newton's "Scholium Generale" beautifully frames the modern version of this debate. For him, the evenness of planetary orbits is a phenomenon that does "not" permit an explanation "based on mechanical causes". This "elegantissime" structure can solely have originated through the decision and dominion of a supreme intelligence. Based on the phenomena of nature, one attains to certainty regarding the Creator.

Was Newton right? Does a quasi-scientific cosmological proof of the existence of God exist? Do some especially complex phenomena not speak distinctly in favour of an "intelligent design" in nature? Newton goes even further: The multiplicity of objects cannot originate from the blind play of coincidence and necessity. The conventional evolutionary theory of today declares the exact opposite: the entire range of species has originated through the undirected play of the forces of mutation and selection. For Newton, the entire range of objects derives its origins solely "from the ideas and the will" of the supreme being. And this is for him a certainty that he derives from his research.

So one of the greatest scientists of all time concluded that scientific evidence showed that God was directly involved in the creation and governance of the Solar System.

But there was a profound problem lurking in his argument. Newton assumed in [his] account that God's Providence repeatedly intervened in order to secure the stability of planetary orbits and of the solar system (cf. Stanley Jaki, Intelligent Design? [Port Huron, MI, USA: 2005], p. 12). In the absence of such repeated special divine intervention on the part of the Creator, Newton's mathematical calculations indicated that the planetary orbits would be unstable and quickly devolve from order to chaos.

Newton's equally brilliant interlocutor Leibnitz had a very different view of divine action and divine omnipotence. He took Newton to task for the fact that, according to the teaching of the latter, it was necessary for "God to wind up his watch from time to time"; "otherwise it would stand still"; according to Newton's outlook, God's work was "imperfect in a manner that requires him to clean and even to repair it from time to time, just like a watchmaker must do with 'his work'." Leibnitz holds this to diminish the omnipotence of God, and contrasts it with his own teaching of the "sublime prestabilized order", in which alone the wisdom and power of God is manifested (cf. Samuel Clarke, Correspondence of 1715-16 with G. W. Leibnitz, Ed. E. Dellian [Hamburg: i ggo], pp. 10ff.; cf. E. Dellian, The Rehabilitation of Galileo Galilei, or How to Measure the Truth [Private Publication, Berlin: 2006], p. 326).

Liebniz's view was thoroughly vindicated within a century. The great physicist Laplace, with a great deal of additional data about the Solar System, and a better-developed mathematical physics of celestial mechanics, was able to provide a purely "mechanical" explanation for the orbits of the planets less than 100 years later.

Here we find one of the best examples (they are actually rather rare, despite their fame) of the so-called "god of the gaps" problem associated with a religious worldview. Wherever one invokes God to fill gaps in physical knowledge, his place is diminished with every discovery that is able once again to clarify a piece of the heretofore inexplicable. And each time these "survival spaces" decrease, the more assured of victory are many in the "scientific community" that the "God hypothesis" will one day become entirely unnecessary.

Yet the whole "god of the gaps" problem turns on two peculiarly modern (and false) ideas. The first false idea is that intelligence can only operate by extrinsic manipulation of preexisting, relatively passive things. But what if intelligence is in some sense "built in" to Nature?

The second false idea is the univocal understanding of the notion of "cause". To explain something as the "cause" of a natural phenomenon in terms of some law-like or mechanically continuous process is to explain by means of what the ancients called efficient and material cause. But it says nothing about the formal cause (the reality of the patterned structure of a natural thing as an irreducible cause of its activities) nor the final cause (the reality of the tendency of natural things repeatedly to act in the same way according to their natures).

Darwin's historical context

It was in this already thoroughly modern intellectual milieu — with "design" understood solely as extrinsic teleology, and "cause" reduced to a single "billiard-ball" meaning — that Charles Darwin entered the scene. As professor Stanley L. Jaki abundantly demonstrated, Darwin was "possessed" by the will to give a scientific and plausible explanation of the origin of species able to dispense entirely with distinct and independent creational acts of God.

His theory of "descent with modification", which only subsequently came to be known as evolutionary theory, was a single extended argument for a purely "'Immanent", indeed, a purely material and mechanical explanation of the "origin of species".

Whereas Newton had still asserted that no change and thus no variation in things could possibly develop based on blind necessity, since this is solely possible based on the divine ideas and the divine will, Darwin made exactly the opposite argument: The whole diversity of species has its origin in mutations based on coincidence, and their probability of survival. No plan of the Creator — much less any special interventions — was required for this process to result in everything we now observe in the biosphere.

Based upon the thorough research of Stanley Jaki, there remains scarcely any doubt that Darwin wished to assist materialism in securing scientific victory. God knows that he hardly stood alone in this effort during the 19th century. Not coincidentally, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels enthusiastically welcomed Darwin's theory as the scientific basis for their own theory.

This ideological, worldview-oriented aspect of Darwin's theory is probably the principal reason for the fact that, up to the present day, evolution and creation unabatedly remain the objects of intense discussion and impassioned struggle. I regard it as a task of overriding importance to bring more clarity to the debate by employing the means of natural philosophy. This entails several steps:

1. We must first and foremost recover an understanding of what the modern scientific method and the modern scientific mode of explanation is able to explain, and what it is intrinsically unable to explain. By its method it cannot deal directly with "top-down" causation, and can only proceed by means of mathematical and mechanical explanations. For example, neurobiological research can uncover with exquisite detail the physical/neural substrate of mental processes. But neuroscience cannot "prove" that mind is reducible without remainder to brain because its methods are unable directly to grapple with immaterial realities. (However, good neuroscience is at least highly suggestive of the irreducibility of mind to brain).

In short, we must overcome the rampant scientism within our culture. "Scientism" could be aptly defined as the philosophy (usually implicit and unrecognized) that modern science is the only way of gaining objective knowledge of reality.

2. Armed with a richer understanding of the nature and limits of modern science, we must re-examine the genuine science at work in Darwin's theory (and its further developments) and begin to separate it from ideological and worldview-oriented elements that are foreign to science.

Darwin must be disentangled from Darwinism; he must be freed from his ideological shackles as well as an implicitly reductionist philosophy characteristic of all modern science.

3. One must be permitted to exercise criticism rooted in fact against the reductionist and ideological aspects of Darwinism. It is amazing that it should be forbidden (as in the debate in the U.S.A.) to pose the question concerning teleology in nature in science classrooms in public schools, with the result being that it is permissible to teach materialism (as an eminently debatable worldview) as inextricably woven in to expositions of Darwin's theory. This cannot be permitted if instruction in biology is not to be ideologically burdened with non-thematic elements.

4. This in turn requires considerable freedom in the discussion of open questions in evolutionary theory. Commonly in the "scientific community", every inquiry into the scientific weaknesses of the theory is blocked off at the very outset. To some extent there prevails a type of censoring here of the sort for which one eagerly reproached the Church in former times.

5. But the decisive question lies not at the level of the natural sciences, nor at the level of theology, but rather between the two, namely, of natural philosophy. I am becoming increasingly convinced of the fact that the decisive steps forward in the debate concerning evolutionary theory will lie at the level of natural philosophy and metaphysics. It will do us all good to enter with more precision into the philosophical aspects of our debate.

6. For this debate in recent months has shown me one thing very clearly: it represents a false dichotomy, even a caricature, when everything is reduced to a conflict between evolutionists and creationists. Using that approach, one makes things too easy for himself. The "creationist" position is based upon an understanding of the Bible that the Catholic Church does not share. The first page of the Bible is not a cosmological treatise about the coming to be of the world in six solar days.

Faith and evolution

The possibility that the Creator also makes use of the instrument of evolution is one that the Catholic faith can countenance. The question is rather whether evolutionism (as a materialistic, reductionistic, world-view forming concept) is compatible with faith in a Creator. This question in turn presupposes that one distinguishes between the scientific theory of evolution and its worldview-oriented, that is to say, philosophical and reductionstic, interpretation. This in turn presupposes the attainment of clarity regarding the philosophical presuppositions behind the current debate over evolution.

Often, one seeks that way out which states that biology, as well as the natural sciences more generally, are merely methodologically materialistic and mechanistic, but that they do not therefore pay homage to materialism and mechanism as a worldview or philosophy. Even if this were so, it still remains clear that this methodological option is a spiritual act that presupposes human intelligence, will, and freedom. That alone is sufficient to demonstrate that the limitation of the methods in the natural sciences to purely material processes cannot do justice to the whole of reality.

Newton's statement that it is the task of natural philosophy to make assertions about God ex phaenomenis, that is, on the basis of natural phenomena, retains its full validity. The Catholic faith, along with the Bibles of the Old and New Covenants, holds firmly that reason can discern the existence of the Creator through his traces in Creation with certainty, albeit not without effort.

What, then, can reason discern? To begin with, that reason exists, and that human reason itself comprises something more than its material conditions.

The development of a scientific theory is a spiritual process, even when this theory is materialistic. Alfred N. Whitehead's ironic remark about those Darwinists who disavow any form of directedness toward an end is well-known: "Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting object for study" (The Function of Reason [Princeton, 1929], p. 12). Human beings experience themselves as ends, and also as the setters of goals. Human action is not conceivable as anything other than as oriented toward a goal. There is hardly an example of any activity more goal-oriented than scientific activity, and especially of work in the natural sciences.

But how does all of this work in the sub-human world, with animals, plants, with the inorganic part of nature, with the cosmos itself? Are purposes present there? If so, then who establishes them? Who follows goals, where no will is present to resolve upon them? This is perhaps the key question in the debate concerning creation and evolution. A remark by Darwin in a letter of 1870 to J. Hooker can help us: "I cannot look at the universe as a result of blind chance. Yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design or indeed any design of any kind, in the detail" (More Letters of Charles Darwin, Ed. F. Darwin and A. C. Seward [New York: 1903], vol. I, p. 321).

The contemplation of nature, the exploration of the universe, of life, speaks to us with "overwhelming evidence" (so I stated in the New York Times) of order, planning, fine-tuning, intention, and purpose. The question is only: Who recognizes the design? And how is it recognized? Darwin says that he cannot recognize any sort of design in the details of the explorations of nature. And this will indeed not be possible based on a strictly scientific, quantitative, measure-oriented methodology. Martin Rhonheimer says: "That which we can in fact see and observe in nature are neither plans nor purposes, but at best . . . the results thereof. We see teleology, goal-oriented processes, and a purposeful and also beautiful order in nature. But we cannot observe whether the causal principles of natural processes are in fact 'intentions' and 'intelligent plans'. What we see in nature is not design, but rather something that must rest upon design" (Pro Manuscripto, p. 4).

We do, however, speak as though "nature" were a spirit-endued subject that sets goals for itself and acts in a way that is directed toward them. Even strict Darwinists, indeed Darwin himself, speak repeatedly of nature in this "anthropomorphic" manner, even when they afterward correct themselves.

Does "nature" only act as though it had goals? In his Quinta Via, the fifth of his "proofs for God's existence," St Thomas Aquinas helps us proceed here. The bodily things in nature, so he says, which are themselves lacking in cognition, act in a goal-oriented manner, in order to attain to that which is good for them. They do not attain their goal through coincidence, but purposefully (non a casu, sed ex intentione). Yet they do not arrive at this through their own intentions, for after all they have no cognition, but rather through a cognizing agent who steers them toward their goal, like an archer his arrow. This cognizing agent, who steers all natural things toward their goal, we call God (Summa Theologiae, q. 2, a. 3).

Martin Rhonheimer comments as follows: "Nature behaves in a purposeful manner (as though it acts intelligently and in accordance with a plan); but since no intelligent and intentionally acting causes are to be discerned in nature itself, this intelligent cause must lie outside of nature".

Origins of life

The self-evident experience of nature as being directed toward an end, as ordered, and as beautiful, leads to the question: "Where do these come from?" Evolutionary theory, with its scientific method, cannot provide an answer here; it can only explore measurable and mechanical causes. "Consequently it [sic] also cannot assert that evolutionary theory proves there to be no God who plans, whose Spirit is the cause of nature and its evolution" (M. Rhonheimer, Pro Manuscripto, II).

An oft-cited remark by George C. Simpson says: "Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that does not have him in mind. He was not planned" (The Meaning of Evolution [New Haven: 1949], p. 344). If Simpson had said: No plan according to which mankind came about may be discerned using the purely quantitative-mechanical methods of scientific inquiry, then this assertion would be correct. But this way of looking at things is not "given by nature," but is rather a deliberate, methodological, and eminently goal-oriented option.

The conscious limitation of its point of view to the quantifiable, to material conditions and interconnections, has permitted formidable advances of the natural sciences, allowing modern man to dominate and control nature to an amazing extent. But it would be highly problematic if one wished to declare as simply non-existent everything that is here being methodologically suppressed, starting with the faculties of reason and free will that permit this methodological choice.

It is true: The genetic code of human beings differs only very slightly from that of chimpanzees. Yet only a human being can arrive at the notion of exploring his genetic code, and that of the chimpanzee in addition!

Can a non-reductionist, philosophical understanding of nature not also help to gain a clearer view in the debate that concerns us here? Permit me to explicate this on the basis of three examples, which address typical areas of difficulty in the debate over evolutionism:

1. The first example is the concept of kinds, of species. The name of Darwin's famous work is The Origin of Species. But do they actually exist, these species? Can they be grasped based on a purely quantitative method? Is not everything that we refer to as a species merely a snapshot along the broad continuum of evolution? On the level of the measurable and the quantifiable, species and genera are empty words. But the eyes of the spirit grasp very well that there exists the species "cat". Is the distinction between dogs and cats therefore already unscientific?

2. The necessity of trusting in the "eyes of the soul" becomes still clearer when it concerns the question that is today frequently dismissed as "unscientific" because it is ultimately metaphysical, and lies beyond the purely material: namely, the question regarding essences and substantial form.

Everything living discloses itself as form, as the expression of an internal principle that is more than its material components. The exploration of biochemical detail can methodologically prescind from the question regarding form or gestalt; but, in the long run, if it does not wish to devolve into blind science, it cannot neglect inquiry into what makes plants, dogs, etc., into that which they themselves are.

3. Reading the traces of God in Creation: Is this not the task of science? The early scientists, from Copernicus through Galileo to Newton, were convinced of this. Next to the book of the Bible, they recognize the book of Creation, within which the Creator speaks to us in readable, perceptible language (cf. R. Schaeffler, "Reading in the Book of the World. A Way of Speaking Philosophically to God?" in Voice of the World, 2006, pp. 363-378).

What is overlooked in a materialistic concept of science is the sense of wonder about the "readability" of reality. Scientific exploration of nature is only possible because it gives us an answer. Nature is "built" such that our spirit can penetrate its structural laws. As I said in my article in the journal First Things, "The natural world is nothing less than a mediation between minds — the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds". What could be more fundamental to science than the assumption that the explorability and thereby the cognizability of reality arises due to its bearing the "handwriting" of its author? God speaks the language of his creation; and our spirit, which is likewise his creation, is able to perceive it, to hear it, to comprehend it. Is this the reason why modern science grew specifically in the nurturing soil of the Judeo-Christian belief in creation?

A materialistically constricted science studies the letters but cannot read the text. Exploring and analyzing the material letters is the presupposition for being able to read the immaterial text. But the letters do not constitute the text itself, but are only the material bearer thereof. Science that confines itself exclusively to material conditions is "one-handed" and thereby "one-sided". Missing from it [is] that which actually marks a human being as human: His gift of elevating himself over material conditions with reason and intuition, to press ahead to meaning, to truth, to the "message of the Author of the text."


I have argued that we must stand with Catholic and Christian tradition and its belief in a good Creator, in his "progetto intelligente del Cosmos" (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 13 Nov. 2006). We uphold the ancient claim — made first by pagan Greek philosophers and Jewish monotheists, and strongly reiterated by early Christians who were heirs to both traditions — that human reason is capable of discerning the intelligence in and behind the great natural order that makes modern science possible.

Let us conclude on a different note, somber and yet ultimately more hopeful than any product of natural philosophy and natural science.

Modern science can lead us to ask: Why this laborious, complicated, seemingly "barbaric" path of cosmic evolution? Why its countless trials and blind alleys, its billions of years of time and expansion of the universe; why the gigantic explosions of supernovae, the cooking of the elements in the nuclear fusion of the stars; the excruciating grind of biological evolution with its endless start-ups and extinctions, its catastrophes and barbarities, right up to the unfathomable brutalities of life and survival to the present day?

Does it not make more sense here to see the whole as the blind play of coincidences in an unplanned nature? Is this not more honest than the attempts at a theodicy of a Leibnitz, which come into great crises as lines of argument? Is it not more plausible simply to say: Yes, the world just is that cruel?

One thing should be clear at the conclusion of our reflections: Let us not be excessively hasty in wanting to demonstrate "intelligent design" everywhere as a matter of apologetics. Like Job, we do not know the answer to suffering. We have been given only one answer. This was given by God himself. The Logos, through whom and in whom everything was created, has assumed flesh, and thereby the entire history of the universe, of evolution, with its aspects of magnificence as well as cruelty.

The Cross is the key to God's plan and decisions. As important, as indispensable as renewed and deepened effort in matters of natural science and natural philosophy may be, the Word from the Cross is God's final Wisdom. For through his Holy Cross he has reconciled the entire world. And the Cross is the gate to the Resurrection.

If the Resurrection of Christ is, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his Easter Homily of this past year the "explosion of love", which has dissolved the heretofore indissoluble network of 'death and becoming', then we may also say: Here is the goal of "evolution". We also know its meaning from its end, its fulfilment. Even if it sometimes seems without goal or direction in its individual steps, the lengthy path has had a purpose towards Easter and from Easter onward.

It is not that "the path is the goal", but rather, the Resurrection and the Second Coming of the Lord are the purpose of the path.

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