Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Again with the Science and Design!

As I mentioned just the other day, I'm a huge fan of First Things, and so I was standing at my mailbox like a kid or a puppy yesterday when the January issue was delivered into my hot little hands. Alexander McCall Smith has a series of books about a German philologist, Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of the Institute of Romance Philology, and in one scene we find him sitting down at the end of a tough day to enjoy the pages of his favorite academic journal over a glass of port wine. I am very much like that when First Things is delivered, though I'm happy to say that I have yet to have the experience that Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld had when he glanced through the academic journal only to find his own best scholarly publication had been thoroughly trashed by one of his colleagues. Well, perhaps I should say that I have yet to have that experience upon looking into the latest issue of First Things: people trash my academic work all the time in other venues, but let's not talk about that.

Instead, let's talk about the rich fare available in First Things. First off, there is an essay by our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, "Europe and its Discontents". I am very much looking forward to reading that. Then there is quite a nice exchange between Stephen Barr and his critics in the Correspondence section.

But what caught my eye right away was an essay by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn called "The Designs of Science". The Cardinal claims that his New York Times Op-Ed piece has been widely misunderstood, that he did not intend to offer either a theological or a philosophical argument in favor of Intelligent Design, but rather
my argument was based on the natural ability of the human intellect to grasp the intelligible realities that populate the natural world, including most clearly and evidently the world of living substances, living beings. Nothing is intelligible--nothing can be grasped in its essence by our intellects--without first being ordered by a creative intellect. The possibility of modern science is fundamentally grounded on teh the reality of an underlying creative intellect that makes the natural world what it is. The natural world is nothing less than a mediation betwen minds: the unlimited mind of the Creator and our limited human minds.
Well. The first part of that is certainly compatible with Aristotelianism--indeed, it is Aristotelianism. The latter part is not Aristotelianism, but Thomism. Neither, however, can be regarded as an "argument", both parts are, rather, assertions, a priori statements of how the Cardinal reads the world.

Not that there's anything wrong with that--I certainly do not disagree with his reading of the world. Far from it: it is precisely the same as my own reading of the world. But it is important to see that it is not an argument about how the world must be. In particular, although I believe it is true, it simply does not follow that if the world must be ordered in a certain way in order to be intelligible that there must, by logical necessity, be an intelligent designer responsible for putting that order in place. This is precisely the error caught by Hume--like effects do not entail like causes.

It's a little dated now, but Stuart Kauffman's The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (Oxford, 1993) does a pretty good job of demonstrating the invalidity of the Cardinal's inference (he has given a less technical version of his account in the slightly more recent Investigations [Oxford, 2000])--if, that is, he really intends it to be an inference. I rather doubt that he does so intend it, but that's the danger of using a word like "argument" to describe what you're doing--you leave people with the impression that your position has, in some sense, been "demonstrated", even "proved".

There is a sense in which at least a portion of the Cardinal's position can be proved--Aristotle, most famously, offered quite extensive arguments in favor of his view of an ordered kosmos in such places as his Physics, Metaphysics, and De generatione et corruptione. To accept Aristotle's argument, however--or indeed any arguments about anything--one must be prepared to accept the truth of certain first principles. Aristotle gave an extensive account of how and why this is supposed to work in his treatise called Posterior Analytics (don't get me started--I had my first colonoscopy last week, but I promise not to blog about it). First principles, pretty much by definition, cannot themselves be proved by means of logical inference. in some cases, we must simply rely on first principles that are intuitively obvious. But this will not always be possible: a position such as the one that Cardinal Schöborn is defending relies on first principles that are very much open to doubt.

For the Christian this is one very important reason to remain a global anti-realist about science. By rejecting reductive materialism a priori we commit ourselves to a certain view of the world that cannot, of course, be proved to the satisfaction of the reductive materialist, but that does cohere with science and its methods in a way that it could not otherwise do, and we accomplish this by means of a theoretical maneuver that has the rather nice side-effect of reducing any reductive materialist objection to our worldview--such as those on offer from the likes of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk--to fallacious question begging.

In the end, I must agree with Cardinal Schönborn, now that he has explained himself a little better, that he is, indeed, talking about something that may be called "science", science in the "natural philosophy" sense that he calls upon in his essay, science in an ultimately epistemological, an Aristotelian, sense. But that is rarely what real scientists are talking about these days, working scientists in the laboratory are never going to be able to accept an Aristotelian, let alone a Thomist, view of what they are doing. Unforunately for them!


The Sanity Inspector said...

Nice job. I can tell you do this for a living. If you care to click through and look at my reaction to the same article, it seems positively inchoate by comparison. Yet, isn't it nice being a ROFTER!

Scott Carson said...

ROFTERS rule! Thanks for your kind words. I had a look at your essay--I thought it was totally choate. I especially like your writing style, and wish I could write things like

I would actually think less of the Creator if He was constrained to take an active hand in the operation of the universe, if our scientific inquiries could actually jacklight Him at His forge, pumping the bellows of Creation.

Keep up the good work!