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Monday, December 05, 2005

Intelligent Design, Roman Catholicism, and the Supreme Court


Despite the NYT's headline writer trying to spin Laurie Goodstein's article as an early eulogy for Intelligent Design (ID), what the article actually suggests, to me anyway, is that we are in for a serious fight over ID and evolution that may eventually reach the Supreme Court like a Scopes Trial on crack. Now, consider this:

(1) If Alito is confirmed, there will a Roman Catholic majority on the Court.
(2) Despite its "big tent" campaign, Intelligent Design is a production of Roman Catholic thought.

You can look up the evidence for the first point. The second may not be as obvious. It isn't that Michael Behe is Roman Catholic as are many other ID advocates, rather ID is consistently and, I think self-consciously, Thomistic in its philosophy. One text that makes this all but explicit is Benjamin Wiker's book "Moral Darwinism". Wiker traces Darwin's work and the culture that eagerly embraced it all the way back to the Greek materialist/hedonist philosopher, Epicurus, whose philosophy was "reborn" through Lucretius' poem, De Rerum Natura, around the 15th century in Europe.

Wiker does a fine job analyzing his selection of Greek thinkers and their influence on western culture. I partially agree with Dembski's assessment in the foreword that Wiker "has traced the historical roots of the culture war back to its metaphysical roots". However, I think the work fails to achieve this where Wiker, a lecturer in theology and science at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, allows his Thomism to limit his analysis.

Thomism, of course, is a dominant thread in Roman Catholic thought. The philosophy of Thomas of Aquinas is steeped in Aristotle and he helped to formulate what one could argue is the first distinction of western secular thinking, viz., that there is a sharp epistemological distinction to be drawn between nature and grace. Purely autonomous reasoning can lead us to knowledge of god’s existence, but we need Special Revelation to gain knowledge of salvation in Jesus Christ, the nature of the Trinity, redemptive history, etc. Using Aristotelian categories apart from any Revelation from God, man can, by his own independent powers of intellect, gain truths about the natural world.

In light of this, it is telling that Wiker chooses Epicurus as the originator of evolutionary thinking and Lucretius as the first Darwinist. In a footnote, he does admit that Empedocles predates Lucretius in developing evolutionary mechanisms, but disqualifies Empedocles because he was influenced by Pythagorean ideals and appealed to divine causes; in other words, Empedocles was not a rigorous, thorough-going materialist. However, professor Wiker completely ignores the evolutionary thought of the early Ionian philosopher, Anaximander.

At first, I chalked this up to convenience of presentation, but as I kept reading, it became obvious that Wiker was trying to reserve a place of honor for Aristotle by way of giving honor to Thomas of Aquinas. He has to divide the Greek thinkers into good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are the ones whose philosophy corrupted Medieval thought and handed western society over to materialistic hedonism and evolutionary cosmology.

The problem with this angle is that all Greek philosophy has this proclivity. Evolutionary cosmology is built into the milieu of Greek thinking. Metaphysical materialism and ethical hedonism are its inevitable fruit. It is significant that neither the Academics nor the Peripatetics are mentioned in Acts 17 when Paul is debating the Athenians. Platonism and Aristotelianism had given way to Epicureanism and Stoicism by their own failure to produce a coherent and vital worldview. Likewise, Thomism led to radical nominalism and the Renaissance for parallel reasons.

OK. Maybe that's more history of philosophy than you bargained for coming to this blog today, so let me get to the point. I am suggesting that Thomism will be the downfall of ID. Let me illustrate. Take this quote from the Intelligent Design network site

"Objectivity results from the use of the scientific method without philosophic or religious assumptions in seeking answers to the question: Where do we come from?"

"We believe objectivity in the institutions of science, government and the media will lead not only to good origins science, but also to constitutional neutrality in this subjective, historical science that unavoidably impacts religion. We promote the scientific evidence of intelligent design because proper consideration of that evidence is necessary to achieve not only scientific objectivity but also constitutional neutrality."
Even apart from the naïve (and mistaken) presumption that there is any method free of religious or philosophical presuppositions, there is also a difference of approach between ID and evolution that will hamper even the limited ID goal of discrediting evolutionary theory. The focus of ID comes across as an alleged proof of a fundamental assumption, viz. purpose and design itself.

It is not insignificant that one of the traditional proofs for the existence of God was the proof from design, not the proof for design. The teleological proof had force before Darwin because design was so subjectively obvious in that era as to be epistemologically basic, not needing proof. The advocates of ID would be well-advised to study closely the arguments of Hume and Kant against the teleological proof.

Evolution on the other hand does not bother itself with "demonstrating" the radical contingency and purposelessness of nature (in fact, it bolsters its popularity by suppressing this presupposition). Instead, it goes about organizing the facts of experience according to its hidden presupposition.

Evolution has more of an appearance of "science" because it stays within the boundary of its philosophical presupposition without drawing attention to it. ID looks less like science because it is not challenging evolution at the most basic level; instead it almost pretends to be working along the same methodological lines as any other science to discover its operating principles. This is turning things on their head.

While in the short-term, ID may help to raise some doubts about the evolutionist's presuppositions, the failure to argue at the root of the conflicting views will hurt ID in the long-term as the advocates of evolution will have a better case that ID is not science. I believe a direct confrontation at the most basic philosophical level would have better long-term results and might even improve the nature of ID as a science.

Evolution is not hard to refute. It is quite easy for intelligent people to refuse to believe in an idea that, if it was true, is itself the product of impersonal, random forces. Whatever evidences may be marshaled in its favor, they cannot override this legitimate “defeater” for everyone with a capacity for rigorous thinking.

Evolution cannot be "proven" in any traditionally scientific sense. Bertrand Russell would ask his students to prove the world was older than five minutes. When they presented the obvious evidence (e.g., "I had eggs for breakfast three hours ago") he would point out the world could have spontaneously come into existence five minutes ago complete with memories of a former time. His point was that belief in the actual spacio-temporality of the past cannot be demonstrated scientifically. It is a primitive assumption. The Hutton/Lyell principle of uniformitarianism is an extension of this primitive assumption, adding the notion of consistent, natural regularity over vast periods of time.

Using uniformitarian principles and simple observation, how old would we have said Adam was on the second Sabbath? Denying or suspending belief in a "literal" six day creation is already the assertion of a religio-philosophical proclivity. It is not more "rigorous", "rational", "neutral", or "scientific" since those judgments are determined by the same proclivity that leads one to deny or suspend belief in the first place.

Adam may have appeared to be 15 or 20 years old when in fact he was only a week old. The mountains may have appeared to be thousands or millions of years old when in fact they were only 3 days older than Adam. Using a particular method (let's call it "scientific") you would be led to erroneous conclusions due to the limitations of the method. You would be faithfully applying the method--which may be quite useful in other situations--but it would not help determine how old Adam and the mountains were on the second Sabbath. You would need Special Revelation to know the natural facts of the situation.

If a new Scopes trial reaches the Supreme Court, a Roman Catholic majority on the bench would probably give a sympathetic hearing to Intelligent Design. That doesn't mean they would certainly rule in favor of any particular case, but if they did, the Culture War would reach a new low. The secularists would be incensed and the traditionalists would only have set the clock back and reinforced the very ideas that led to Darwin's success in the first place.

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