Is the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna nuts?

Or have I missed something subtle in “this piece”:http://print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0601/articles/schonborn.html about Intelligent Design? He seems to be arguing that we have “philosophical”, _i.e_ mediaeval scholastic, knowledge of certain truths about the world, which take precedence over scientific understandings. For example, we know that the universe is the product of an intelligence not by faith — since that would imply that there was no warrant for the belief — nor by science — since science excludes, by its nature, any such teleology — but by philosophy and natural reason: the fact that we can understand the world proves that it was made by some other intelligent being. Intelligibility is a conversation. This argument apparently derives for Aquinas. I don’t find it -wholly- convincing, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

And he has a subtle and wholly defensible position on the two magisteria:

bq. If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes’ and Bacon’s project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise.

But then he has to go and spoil it by claiming that there is warrant for his _philosophical_ intuition in the stories that modern biology tells:

bq. “The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term ‘random.’ But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don’t know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.”

But why does he suppose evolution _has_ %(sane)”an upward sweep”% What on earth makes him suppose that %(sane)the complete set of plants an animals living today% — the overwhelming majority of animals nematode worms; the majority of living things being neither plants nor animals, but fungi and bacteria and possibly viruses — would make anyone think of purpose?

I think his argument could reasonably be reduced to this: because we are capable of experiencing and believing in God, God must exist — and have the qualities that the _Catechism of the Catholic Church_ (which Schönborn edits) ascribes to Him. Richard Dawkins once dismissed a silliness by Hugh Montefiore as “the argument from episcopal incredulity”. Here we have, in a very pure form, something that looks like the argument from Archiepiscopal credulity.

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6 Responses to Is the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna nuts?

  1. He’s not nuts, he just doesn’t understand evolution. The last bit is just another example of the teleological fallacy: where he says “_The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today._” is just the same as saying isn’t it amazing that we evolved on a planet perfectly suited to hosting us.

  2. Mrs Tilton says:

    Och aye. See, this is what happens when we leave off hanging aristos from lampposts and instead let them assume the archiepiscopal purple.

    As fer yer last para, well: I once met a young and very intelligent monk who had spent a lot of time thinking about Anselm’s ontological proof. His take: the proof was meant as a deep and fruitful jumping-off point for Anselm’s monks in their meditations, nothing more. To think otherwise, my monk friend said, Anselm would have had to be very dim indeed; and dim (so the monk) Anselm was not.

    Ask and you shall receive, by the way. You shall have your receipt for roast goose tomorrow. I suspect, though, that you’ll find it differs from your own only immaterially.

  3. acb says:

    Ben, I’m not sure that the two things are identical. I mean, it is not at all sure that the planet is perfectly suited to us. There’s a fair chance that it will demonstrate the opposite quite vigorously in the next century. But even if it were, I think that he’s making the slightly stronger claim that intelligent, lovable-by-God[1] life had to emerge from evolution. There may be plenty of planets on which we might have evolved, and which are yet without intelligent life, or life like us. In that case there is something that needs explanation about the fact that we’re here at all, rather than here (and not on another sort of planet).

    fn1. in his terms

  4. if you are interested in reading more about what the cardinal has to say on this issue, you might find the information on my site/blog helpful.

    this link particularly: http://www.cardinalschonborn.com/2005/12/summary-and-clarification-of-evolution.html

    Thanks!

  5. RupertG says:

    “There may be plenty of planets on which we might have evolved, and which are yet without intelligent life, or life like us. In that case there is something that needs explanation about the fact that we’re here at all, rather than here (and not on another sort of planet).”

    There are so many unknowable probabilities here – mutation is, after all, at least somewhat random, and there is increasing evidence that the period during which species like us can be detected at a distance with our current level of technology may be limited to three or four generations. (Radio technology is rapidly moving away from using transmitters detectable at interstellar distances, for very good reasons).

    In any case, isn’t this argument some flavour of anthropic principle – and no more convincing?

  6. acb says:

    There are more and less interesting versions of the anthropic principle. Obviously, if you’re a Cardinal, you are committed to a pretty strong version of the anthropic principle — what I don’t understand is how you’re supposed to argue that it arises from the evidence. To say that we understand it philosophically is entirely different from claiming that it arises from the explanation.

    But then I still don’t uinderstand how the Cardinal gets from %(sane) If the Darwinist, taking up Descartes’ and Bacon’s project of understanding nature according only to material and efficient causes, studies the history of living things and says that he can see no organizing, active principles of whole living substances (formal causes) and no real plan, purpose or design in living things (final causes), then I accept his report without surprise.%

    To %(sane) the evident order, purpose, and intelligence manifested so clearly in the world of living beings?%

    Perhaps the clue is in his discussion of “randomness”: %(sane) First of all, we must observe that the role of randomness in Darwinian biology is quite different from its role in thermodynamics, quantum theory, and other natural sciences. In those sciences randomness captures our inability to predict or know the precise behavior of the parts of a system (or perhaps, in the case of the quantum world, some intrinsic properties of the system). But in all such cases the “random” behavior of parts is embedded in and constrained by a deeply mathematical and precise conceptual structure of the whole that makes the overall behavior of the system orderly and intelligible.%

    By analogy with physics, he would want some large-scale regularities in biology, then. His argument seems to be that unpredictability and randomness at the quantum level doesn’t count as real randomness, and Einstein be damned, because there are laws we can apprehend at the “human” scale. But this has to be wrong as a description of the place of randomness in physics, because there really isn’t any overarching order or pattern in the universe revealed by cosmology.

    In the end, his claim comes down to simple dogmatism: %(sane) It was crucially important to communicate a claim about design in nature that was in no way inferior to a “scientific” (in the modern sense) argument. Indeed, my argument was superior to a “scientific” argument since it was based on more certain and enduring truths and principles.% but this is especially odd when he condemns those Catholics who claim that they know it by faith rather than science.

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