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On Being Amazed In The Cosmos: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and "The Purpose of the Path" | Fr. James
V. Schall, S.J. | October 13, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"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 (an eminently
debatable world view) as inextricably woven into exposition of Darwin's
theory." -- Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, 23rd World Youth Day, Sydney. 
"Evolutionism, purporting to
explain all and everything solely and exclusively by natural selection for
adaptation and survival, is the most extreme product of materialistic
utilitarianism of the nineteenth century. The inability of the twentieth
century to rid itself of this imposture is a failure which may well cause the
collapse of Western civilization." -- E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the
The possibility of science
could only have appeared where and when it did because of two basic theological
principles, unique to Christian civilization, as Father Stanley Jaki has
argued. One was the fact that there really are secondary causes. Diverse beings
acted in their own unique ways as real causes of events in the world. The
beings that could so act were not gods or automata.
The second reason was that
the only way to find out what such acting beings did was actually to
investigate them. This presupposed an already existing being with powers to
know who could do the investigating. The effects of such actions could not be
known from some abstract theory from inside the mind, so that no investigation
would be necessary. If there were to be a theory about them, it would have to
be the last, not the first, thing we found out about various kinds of beings.
These two conditions themselves presupposed the idea of a Creation out of
nothing and a real world that was not itself God.
For some time, the Viennese
Dominican Cardinal, Christoph Schönborn, has addressed himself to the relation
of science and theories of evolution.  He has been rather unenthusiastic
about "intelligent design" theories of recent years, though he certainly thinks
they are worthy of consideration. Excluding the very discussion of the evidence
for the issue is a form of academic tyranny. He argues, however, that between
modern scientific theories and religion on this issue, a central ground of
analysis is bypassed. "If we are going to bring more clarity to the modern
debate by employing the means of natural philosophy, several steps are
necessary." Schönborn writes. This "natural philosophy," which is neither
revelation nor modern science itself, is proposed as an alternate way to look
at both religion and science in this controverted area.
Essentially, it suggests
that in-between revelation and modern science is logos or reason in its fuller and not reductionist sense.
Science, as it is now popularly understood, can only know things that can be
measured. This measurement capacity presupposes that they are connected with
matter. But not all knowing or beings are only matter. There are other ways of
knowing aspects of reality—often the highest ones—that do not
presuppose the so-called scientific method as the only way to find out about
them. This method is fine in its own field of competence, but it becomes an
ideology imposed on all of reality when it is claimed that it is the only
method and that measurable matter is the only reality to be considered.
Schönborn rightly begins his
consideration with wonderment about the intense passion that swirls around the
discussion of evolution, even today—or especially today. "Why are these
questions being discussed with such public engagement and widespread passion
since the time of Galileo and Newton?" Obviously, it is because something
fundamental is at stake. It is not just a "scientific" question, but also a
moral one. It is a question of whether what questions science can answer is
coterminous with what is. If
adequate evidence for intelligent order exists—some evidence does exist,
hence the current interest—many a theory will have to be given up, many a
way of living on the supposition that God does not exist will have to be
changed. Both sides have something at stake, not just the religious side.
But Schönborn is not
interested in closing off any pursuit. He is insistent on keeping everyone
honest. The scientists claim their methods prove more than they can prove,
while the intelligent design folks, he thinks, tend to go too far beyond the
evidence that does exist. He is content with letting both realms see what they
can prove within their own confines. That is the only honest way. Meantime, he
thinks that natural philosophy does give us insights into things that we need
to know that are not simply material.
Cardinal Schönborn begins by
pointing out that the great early scientists, Newton and Galileo, did not deny
the existence of God. They understood that the whole order was not just "blind
chance." Even suppose questions like "Where do we come from?" or "What is the
purpose of life?" are religious—not scientific—questions, would not
any religious answer still be "groundless" if the world is simply a proved
result of chance? The doctrines of Creation and Providence would go by the
board. One might still follow the famous phrase of Kierkegaard, which the
Cardinal cites, Credo quia absurdam,
"I believe because it is absurd." But this is certainly not the Catholic way,
which sees reason and revelation as compatible with and ordered to each other
in a non-contradictory whole.
Newton was tempted to think
that the world was a manifestation of order that supposed a divine cause, which
Newton thought was shown by his scientific methods. Newton's theory, however,
required God to step in every time something in the scientific explanation did
not fit what went on. Leibnitz in response did not think this constant divine
intervention made much sense. If God had to intervene all the time, His initial
creation must not have been so perfect. This implied a lack in God. The whole
order was rather divinely "pre-established." It did not require any fixing up
in case something went wrong. If anything went wrong, it was not the world but
our theory about it. Later, Laplace did provide a mechanical theory of how the
universe worked. This seemed to vindicate Leibnitz.
Looking at this background,
Schönborn remarks, we see the difficulty with what is called the "God in the
gap" theory. That is, we do not need God except for our inability to explain
something. But when later what we thought could not be explained is explicable
by later investigations, then God becomes more and more unnecessary to the
system. The difficulty with such theories was that they were based on two
"false" ideas. The first was that God could only act extrinsically on things on
the passive things that He had created.
The second was that the idea
of "cause" was restricted to two causes, the efficient and material. But could
not intelligence be within nature itself? And formal causality and final
causality suggested that the whole system of the cosmos may manifest a
"patterned structure." Things do seem to act in a certain way, not just any
way, so that they had an in-built pattern or intelligibility to how they acted.
The problem of "evolution"
came into prominence against this background. A cause was considered to be only
an efficient or a material cause. Darwin's thesis about species thus was based
on a position that assumed that formal and final cause did not exist. Darwin
differed from Newton because the latter still understood that chance by itself
is not an explanation, hence he needed providence. Darwin did not have a place
for either a creator or providence to explain change. Darwin sought a
"scientific" view for materialism as the explanation of why things are as they
are. This assumption that science provides this assurance that God cannot be
related to nature is the reason for the passion behind objective discussions of
evolution as an explanation of things without any attention to ultimate causes.
It is at this point that
Schönborn introduces "natural philosophy." The first step is to ascertain what
modern scientific method as such can and cannot explain. The method must begin
with observable things. Hence, it cannot deal with "top-down causation." Its procedure
is limited to mathematical and mechanical explanations. Cardinal Schönborn
cites the well-known controversy about whether mind can be reduced to brain.
The very method excludes mind, though, as he remarks, "good neuroscience is at
least highly suggestive to the irreducibility of mind to brain." The thought of
a mechanical object, the brain, explaining itself, and knowing it explains
itself, by virtue of its own mechanics, is not a proof of mechanics but of
mind, which cannot be mechanical.
Schönborn uses the phrase
"scientism" to describe this materialist ideology prevalent in Western culture.
It is against this exclusivist position, as Benedict said in the Regensburg
Lecture, that much of the world rebels. It rejects not science but is against "scientism,"
which claims that it can explain everything whatsoever, even itself, by
material and efficient causes.
The next step is to ask
whether the particular evidence that is gathered from the history of material
things can be accepted without, at the same, accepting the "scientism" as its
basis. As Schönborn put it: "Darwin must be disentangled from Darwinism." E. F.
Schumacher had already touched on this same point almost thirty years earlier
when he wrote:
as a generalization within the descriptive science of biological change, can
for this as well as for other reasons be taken as established beyond any doubt
whatsoever. The Evolutionist Doctrine, however, is a very different matter. Not content to confine itself to a
systematic description of biological change, it purports to prove it and
explain it in much the same manner as proof and explanation are offered in the
instructional sciences. This is a philosophical error with the most disastrous
The reductionist premise that
assumes a priori that all can be
explained by efficient and material causes is not enough to explain the facts
of what is observed in change in the biological world.
One makes biology
"ideological" if he does not allow "criticism rooted in fact against the
reductionist and ideological aspects of Darwinism." We do not need more closed
areas of discussion. We need "considerable" freedom to discuss "open questions
in evolutionary theory." The Viennese Cardinal is quite blunt: "To some extent
there prevails a type of censoring here of the sort for which one eagerly
reproached the Church in former times." Today, in other words, it is not the
Church that is doing the censoring but the very science that claimed its
freedom against the Church.
The issue is not revelation
or science but natural philosophy and metaphysics. Here is where the Cardinal
think the problem lies. The issue is not between something called
"evolutionism" and something else called "creationism." The Church does not
understand the account of creation in Genesis to be a "cosmological treatise
about the coming to be of the world in six solar days." Much is taught in these
fertile pages about the relation of God, man, cosmos, and time in the story as
The Church leaves open the
possibility of whether the Creator could use "the instrument of evolution." In
which case, of course, it would not be simply a materialistic analysis. What is
not compatible with the faith is "evolutionism" considered to be exclusively
materialist and chance in essence. We must ask how this "evolutionism" is
understood. What are its presuppositions? It will not do to say that biology is
only "materialistic" in method.
The very decision to use a
method is itself not a material act. "It presupposes human intelligence, will,
and freedom." The method is itself under the control of mind. The whole of
reality includes the decision to use the method, which decision is not
material. Newton was not wrong to claim that natural philosophy itself, on the
basis of its own evidence, can make statements about God based on what is
discovered from what appears. "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." The sources of revelation themselves attest to the power of reason to
find evidence of God in created things.
Where does this leave us? It
leaves us with the question of what reason can prove.
Some purpose exists in parts
of nature; we see it in ourselves. We ourselves are part of nature in the sense
that we are here not caused by ourselves. We see introspectively that we act
for a purpose. We are one being in the universe that does so consciously. It is
"natural" to our nature to do so. Moreover, "there is hardly an example of any
activity more goal-oriented than scientific activity, and especially of work in
the natural sciences." The scientist, as himself a work of nature, pursues a
goal of finding what nature is about. It seems that there ought to be a being
in the universe whose purpose is to understand it from within the universe.
Does this goal-orientedness
hold at the subhuman level? Certainly there seems to be order, of purpose, as
things regularly recur. Does anyone recognize it? To recognize a design we need
a being with a power that is capable of doing so. We may not see the overall
design of nature, but we do see certain consistent orders in the things that we
investigate. We seek in order to find a reason. Citing Aquinas, Schönborn
points out that things regularly repeat themselves as if they were directed by
an inner plan that they did not put there.
By limiting itself to
material and efficient causes, science was able to develop many things. We
might indeed so choose not to look at many aspects of a thing, and proceed
accordingly. But we cannot avoid the fact that we possess reason and free will.
We do not give them to ourselves. They already exist outside the method they
devise to examine things. They allow us to limit ourselves to these two causes.
The very notion of "species" of which Darwin spoke is not something as such
found in nature though it has a basis there. It is recognized by the mind from
the continuum of things spread out before us. The problem of the essence and
substance of a thing cannot be avoided. What is it, after all, that "makes
plants, dogs, etc. into that which they themselves are?" They are not merely a
conglomerate of parts, but a whole that organizes its parts.
The early scientists thought
that there was a "book of Creation" in which it was possible to see "traces" of
the divine in nature. If we have a materialist view of science, we have no
place to "wonder" about what is there, what it means and implies. The world of
things is mid-way between our minds and the divine Mind. It will reveal what it
is to mind, but not to matter, even though it contains matter in the fullness
of its being. "Missing from (science) is that which actually marks a human
being as human: His gift of elevating himself over material conditions with
reason and intuition. He does not just encounter things but he presses ahead to
meaning in truth, to the 'message of the Author of the text.'"
Benedict XVI has spoken of
what he calls the "intelligent project of the Cosmos." Jews, Greeks, and
Christians always held that "human reason is capable of discerning the
intelligence in and behind the great natural order that makes modern science
possible." Science now claims that it understands because it can also grasp why
other things do not explain reality adequately. The power to reject a theory
indicates that a spiritual power can hold both the correct and incorrect
theories in its mind while reality remains the same.
The actual record of "cosmic
evolution" can be looked at. We do not have all the pieces, but we have some of
them. This evolution seems to go in many peculiar ways. The large cosmos
relates to the micro order of tiny things. The record seems "brutal" sometimes,
chaotic. Why is not the world just a "blind play?" It seems so "cruel." We
are not to be too "hasty" in finding "intelligent design."
In the long run, we have
been given only "one answer." This answer is perceptive. It is the Logos. This Logos implies that all things are created in
this same source. This origin implies that within the cosmos traces of mind can
be found. What we find in the cosmos, beauty and of brutality, are both there
as elements in the whole. We need not deny the record of what scientists have
Natural science is not the
final word, though it is a word. If there is evolution, there is also a mind
putting it in place. Within the world is the relation of Logos and Cross. This is God's "final Wisdom." It takes us
back to Schönborn's initial observation about the "top-down" part of looking at
the universe. The Cross is the "gate" to resurrection. The goal of "evolution"
is in what dissolves death and becoming. We know the order of things only in
their completion. The lengthy "path" of evolution, history, cosmos, and our
place within them has had a "purpose." "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."
Why, then, is natural
philosophy so important? It is because it gives us the grounds by which we can
study evolutionary evidence not as ideology but as facts that, once we know
their overall order, we can see how they fit together in one cosmos that itself
need not exist, but does exist because of Logos, the very origin of the "traces" of reason we see in
things once we are freed from the dogma of evolutionary materialism that,
strictly speaking, on its own premises, can see nothing—even its own
mind—which, paradoxically, it uses to tell itself that it does not see.
Let me conclude with the
bemused sentence that the Viennese Cardinal cites from the famous philosopher,
Alfred North Whitehead: "Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving
that there is no purpose constitute an interesting object of study." They are,
in fact, more interesting to study than the cosmos that they purport to study.
The cosmos does not study itself, only men within it, the rational beings, when
they have free time, do so. They seem to be beings curious to know whether they
evolved or not into what they are and whether they will continue to evolve into
what they are not.
Rational beings, open to
natural philosophy, have a spiritual power that is not material. It did not
itself evolve because it could only be what it is from its beginning in what is
like itself. It was already connected to Logos before the evolution itself started. The end of the
cosmos is the end of the being within it with logos. The Cross is the way. "The Resurrection and the
Second Coming of the Lord are the purpose of the path." We are "amazed" at the
cosmos. It is not amazed at us. We indeed have a purpose, but it is not finally
within the cosmos, but in what causes the cosmos to be cosmos, to be an order
that includes precisely us. The purpose of the path is that we walk it.
 Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, "'All Creation Groans': The Debate over Creation
and Evolution," 23d World Youth Day, University of Sydney, July 16, 2008, in L'Osservatore
September 24, 2008.
 E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977),
 If not otherwise noted, quotes throughout this essay are from "Reasonable
Science, Reasonable Faith" by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (First Things, April 2007).
 Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 111.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
Excerpts from Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution,
and a Rational Faith | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview
with physicist Dr. Stephen Barr | Mark Brumley
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin
Wiker, co-author of A Meaningful World | Carl E. Olson
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker |
Carl E. Olson
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is due out later this year from The
Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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