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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

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"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. [1]

"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 Perplexed. [2]


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. [3] 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:

Evolution, 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 consequences. [4]

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 set down.

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 found.

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.


[1] 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 Romano, English, September 24, 2008.

[2] E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), 113.

[3] If not otherwise noted, quotes throughout this essay are from "Reasonable Science, Reasonable Faith" by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (First Things, April 2007).

[4] 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.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

Visit 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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